What it feels like: Living with obesity

Sandra Elia, a food addiction counsellor, talks about her life with obesity.

Emma Jones 14 minute read September 22, 2020
Sandra Elia

When Sandra Elia was nine years old, family members would pull her aside and tell her she was “fat.” And so began a journey with obesity that she says “decimated her entire life.”

Obesity is a complex disease in which the patient has excessive fat accumulation, according to Obesity Canada. Stats Canada found that in 2018 approximately 26.8 per cent — or more than one in four — Canadians were obese. In 2004, it was 23.1 per cent. The upward trend is concerning as individuals with obesity are at a higher risk of other medical conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers.

New guidelines released this summer aim to reduce stigma against obesity and shift the conversation from a focus on size to focus on health.

Healthing.ca spoke to Sandra Elia, a food addiction counsellor and a member of the Obesity Action Coalition’s board of directors, about her experience with obesity and why recent changes to the treatment guidelines for obesity are so critical.

What has your journey been with obesity?

For 15 years of my life I was considered overweight.

Obesity really decimated my entire life. It affected my relationships, it affected my career, it affected my well-being, my moods. I was just the kind of person [where] when I have a diet that’s filled with ultra-processed foods, my mood plummets. It robs me of energy, the desire to work, to pursue my dreams. Living with obesity really robbed me of so much.

It all came to a head when I was 29 years old. I had taken a leave of absence from work for about three months and I just couldn’t get a grasp on any part of my life. My marriage was breaking down, but I didn’t want to deal with that, so I found solace in food. I was taking care of my mom who was living with obesity herself and bi-polar disorder, and I was just trying to save her — even though I was dying myself, I was trying to save her.

It was really just a dark time in my life.

When did your struggle with obesity start?

I started gaining weight when I was about nine or ten, which I think is fairly common for girls, especially when they’re entering puberty.

I was your typical child, a picky eater, didn’t really have a weight issue. Around nine or 10 I had family members who would take me aside and would tell me “you’re getting fat — you gotta watch it.” At the age of nine I didn’t know that I was fat, and that awareness made me hyper-focused on my weight.

What I was taking in was that if you want to be desired, if you want to be popular, if you want to have a fun, fulfilling life, there is only one way to look

MuchMusic had just hit the airwaves so you could sit and watch videos all day. And as a preteen I would sit there and watch music videos that show these gorgeous, slim women. What I was taking in was that if you want to be desired, if you want to be popular, if you want to have a fun, fulfilling life, there is only one way to look, and it looks like the girls on those videos.

Then came the dangerous dieting and restricting.

So you started to diet. What then?

I always say, if you want a sure-fire way to gain weight, go on a diet.

It’s so interesting. We have research to prove all diets work. But we have even more research to prove that over 90 per cent of all diets fail. So what does that tell you? It works in the short term, and then what happens is you rebound and you often gain more weight.

I had this cycle: go on a diet, lose a bit of weight, gain it back and then a little bit more, go on another diet, lose a bit of weight, gain it back and then some more…

When I was in my early twenties, I went to a dietitian and we worked pretty well together, and I managed to lose 50 pounds in six months. That’s not healthy.

When you lose weight at a rapid pace like that you go into something called starvation mode. Humans have been on this planet for a really long time, and famine was a real risk to our ancestors. The only reason you and I are alive today is because our ancestors were able to survive famine. But when you restrict food, your brain goes into overdrive and starts to crave food and seek food. And not just any food — you don’t crave lettuce, that’s too low-calorie. Your brain wants high calorie, sugary food.

My rebound wasn’t just re-gaining the 50 pounds that I lost, it was also an additional 50. I gained over a hundred pounds in about a year and a half.

That was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life, showing up at work month after month, getting heavier and heavier and not knowing what to do. I felt like it was my fault. I was weak, I was lazy, I couldn’t get a handle on this.

By the time I finished gaining a hundred pounds, I was in my late twenties and had to take a leave of absence from work. Everything felt like it was spiralling out of control.

What was it like to gain weight back on after working so hard take lose it?

It was such a dark time of my life. I just remember getting on the scale and thinking, ‘I’ll bounce back, I’ll get control, I’ll get control’. And just kept telling myself that Monday morning, everything’s going to change. I’m going to wake up on Monday morning, I’m going to work out every day. I’m going to eat salad…

My standard was perfection. I was looking for perfection, working out, eating super clean, consistent, and dramatic weight loss, which meant I failed. I failed every time because that’s like trying to be a superhuman. And when I couldn’t do that, I would be so hard on myself. If I didn’t stay perfect, I was garbage. I was a failure. I was a loser.

If I didn’t stay perfect, I was garbage. I was a failure. I was a loser

I didn’t realize all that self-condemnation, all that harshness, drove me to eat for comfort. Like it just kept me stuck in the cycle. It was really quite amazing. It was such a horrible time.

It must have been so difficult to get out of that cycle.

The way out was getting to a place of self-acceptance and self-love. And I know what people are going to think. ‘No! How could I accept myself a hundred pounds heavier?’

I had to. Because behind the urgency and the desperation to lose weight was the self-hatred. I couldn’t stand to be in my body.

I got to this place where I was like ‘Okay, here I am. I love myself. I honestly do not care if I ever lose another pound, I don’t care. I just have to eat for sanity. I have to move my body because it feels good. It can’t be for the scale anymore.’

One of my first steps was never getting on the scale again. That’s not a part of my life. To this day, I do not know what I weigh. I always say my weight is none of my business. My business is to eat whole food, move my body, and get myself to a place where I am appreciating my life and my body.

I am a curvy woman, I’m never going to be an MTV video model, and that’s okay. I don’t want to be eighty years old on my rocking chair thinking that every day of my life I lamented my body.

What kinds of self-exploration did you have to do to get to this place?

When I started this journey 17 years ago there wasn’t a lot of information [about weight loss]. You would go a doctor and they would say, “It’s easy. Calories in, calories out.” I would feel so stupid because I couldn’t do it.

There are plenty of people who can enjoy a glass of wine and be fine. Then there are other people who use alcohol to escape their feelings, to escape from their problems. That was me with food. I used food as a coping mechanism. I was addicted to food. I used food the way someone with alcoholism uses alcohol.

I found a group of people who had found a way to put down their trigger foods. These are foods that you obsess about and once you start eating them it’s very difficult to have a reasonable portion. I treated it like a drug. I thought that it might be safer for me to just not have my trigger food, rather than try to negotiate how much I could have or to try to limit myself to a certain day.

But, once you do that, you shine a light on the rest of your life. It’s not enough to just focus on the food. [The food] is the smallest piece of the puzzle. I had to go deep. I had to look at my thinking patterns. I had to look at my sense of self-worth. I had to clean up areas of my life.

I had to look at every area of my life that was causing me emotional distress. The only coping mechanism I had at the time was food.

I work hard to notice all the things that are right and beautiful about my life, about me, things that I’m grateful for

I could not be in a bad marriage and not use food for comfort. So, I had to face my marriage. I had to clean that up.

I did some pretty intensive therapy, and it’s really allowed me to become an observer for myself. I started noticing that I had thoughts that were pretty destructive and that I actually had the power to challenge those thoughts. I work hard to notice all the things that are right and beautiful about my life, about me, things that I’m grateful for.

Getting fit was your next challenge. Describe that.

One of the biggest turning points in my own journey was I allowed myself to suck at things. Like, really suck.

When I first started my fitness journey I was 29 years old and I could not walk for more than 15 minutes. I was so embarrassed about that. But I changed my mindset and I said, no, if I can do 15 minutes, I’m going to do 15 minutes and I’m going to be proud of it. Instead of shaming myself, I’m actually going to congratulate myself.

That 15 minute walk turned into a half hour walk, then turned into power walks. And I still remember the day I was on Bloor heading to Yonge (in Toronto) when I thought ‘I think I can run.’

I tried running and that running turned into five kilometres, then ten, and eventually a half marathon. I’m proud of that because it took seven years. Seven years is not a sexy story. People want to hear couch potato to marathon in 30 days, but that’s not true — that’s not real. I went from couch potato to half marathon in seven years. But people don’t congratulate you for that.

How do you motivate yourself to keep going?

If it doesn’t bring me joy, I’m not going to do it consistently. A lot of people look at exercise as kind of a punishment. That’s what we’ve been told, right? No pain, no gain. If I’m not in pain, then what’s the point?

What I hear my clients often say is, ‘I’m only going to the gym five days a week If the scale goes down and the minute that still doesn’t go down, I’m abandoning this cause it’s torture.’ You should love it. You should be excited about it and then you can do it consistently and not worry about the scale.

What are some of the things you have learned from your work with people who have food addiction and obesity?

I have seen many changes in the field of food addiction. I would say five years ago people were open to the idea, but they saw it as a bit of an excuse.

What we are addicted to is actually not food. It’s what I call “chemically engineered food-like substances.” These are foods that are generally created in factory. They are nutrient poor, disease causing, and made in way that you can’t stop [eating]. You’re fighting against the science that the manufacturers have put into it.

Really, our brains can react to [these foods] like they are drugs; it’s overwhelming. Our brain’s reward centre, our pleasure centre wants more and more of it.

I think we’ve made huge strides in the food addiction arena, in terms of coming to understand that people are not really eating for hunger, but using food to achieve a feeling. Whether that’s comfort,  escape, or as a coping mechanism where they can numb out. There are a lot of parallels between obesity and other forms of addiction.

Tell us about Canada’s new guidelines for the treatment of obesity.

We’re asking doctors to stop saying, “calories in, calories out.” We’re also starting to understand that body mass index (BMI) is not the only measure of health.

You can have a person with elevated weight, so they could be a little bit heavier, but they don’t have any co-morbidities. They don’t have diabetes, they don’t have hypertension, no fatty liver. There are no health concerns — they are just at a higher weight. Which is okay — we don’t all have to look like the cover of a magazine. It is acceptable to have different body sizes.

[Health] is really about the person. That person needs to decide for themselves, ‘Is my elevated weight rate causing me distress?’ And maybe they don’t have any physical distress, maybe they have emotional distress.

What role does the diet industry play in obesity?

In Canada, we have advertising laws that companies must follow — except in the diet and fitness industry. You can advertise, ‘We have a pill that blocks fat, take it and you lose weight.’ Or ‘You can lose 20 pounds in a month’. Even worse, in the fitness industry, [they advertise] ‘Six pack in two weeks’. Nobody gets a six pack in two weeks. That’s false advertising and it seeps into the culture.

Then, you look at somebody living with obesity and think, well, ‘why aren’t they doing that two week program? Why aren’t they taking those fat blockers? It’s easy and you can lose 20 pounds in a month. Why aren’t they doing it?’

We can no longer point the finger of blame and make assumptions [about people with obesity], because when we point the finger of blame it makes it more difficult to ask for help — it says “This is your fault, you figure it out.” It really perpetuates the shaming.

Tell us your thoughts on the images we see of bodies in the media.

If you’re looking at some famous Instagram stars who have the team and the means, those pictures are retouched and filtered. Waists are made to look smaller, legs are meant to look longer. They don’t actually look like that in real life, but you know what? A young girl [like my daughter] is not going to know that.

And maybe you do know it, but you’re still looking through thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t look like that. Wow. I wish I could be like that.’ Well, guess what? No one’s like that because it’s not real.

I want my daughter to be surrounded with every size, every shape, every colour, every ability. I want her to look at [a curvy woman] and be inspired and I want her to look at someone with a disability and be inspired. I want her to look at a woman of colour and be inspired. I want her to live in an inclusive world.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to live a healthier lifestyle?

I always ask people to break up with their scales. I want people to find out if they have an abusive relationship with their scale.

For myself, for a lot of years of my life, I would get up on the morning, get on the scale and the scale would determine if I was a good person or a bad person and if I was going to have a good day or bad day. If I gained weight, that meant I wasn’t going to eat that day. And if I lost weight, I would think, ‘Great. I’m going to eat today.’ It was a crazy relationship. This scale — an inanimate object — had the ability to change the way I felt about myself and ruin my day.

Like with any abusive relationship, the best thing to do is sever ties, go on your way and don’t look back. And if you are living your best life, eating the best way that you can and moving your body in fun and enjoyable ways, why do you need to know how much you weigh?


emjones@postmedia.com | @jonesyjourn

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