67: Food Freedom After Forty—It's Never Too Late
Rana Olk is extremely passionate about the work she does in helping women find food freedom. She is passionate about that work because she has been through decades of struggling herself. Today on the podcast, she shares her story of recovery from binge eating disorder after decades of feeling like it was hopeless.
In this episode, Rana talks about her childhood and where the behaviors started. She explains some of the cultural differences she experienced in her youth growing up in Turkey as well as the United States.
Her story is equal parts heartbreaking and triumphant—make sure you make it to the end so you can hear all about how she persevered and overcame her struggles. This powerful story will give anyone hope that recovery is possible and worth it no matter your age.
Rana Olk's website: https://www.ranaolk.com/
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Thanks so much for joining me for another episode of Nutrition Matters podcast. I’m Paige and I’m your host. Let me just take a minute to tell you a little bit about this episode today. Today I’m speaking with Rana Olk, who is a certified life coach. She is someone who has been through her own healing process with food. That’s what we focus on in our conversation today - talking about the fact that she found food freedom after the age of forty. Her work revolves around helping women do the same. During this conversation, we do have some strong themes. I wanted to put a little bit of a trigger warning in the beginning. I know the episode before this was all about triggers, so this might be a relevant follow up to that. I do want to be sensitive to anyone who doesn’t want to be exposed to strong themes of binging and purging - we do talk about that quite a bit in this episode, and we also talk about abuse. If those are some topics that aren’t going to sit well with you at this point in your own journey in life, then maybe skip this episode. For anyone else who does want to listen, it’s really really great information. I highly recommend it for anybody, but especially for women over the age of forty. The goal here is for you to not feel alone and to know that other women and other people struggle. It’s never too late to seek help and to change, and that it’s possible, there’s hope. I hope you enjoy this episode. I really think you will. Rana is lovely and so much fun to talk to and has a lot of really interesting stories. Sit back and enjoy it.
Paige: Well Hello, Rana Olk. Thank you so much for joining me on Nutrition Matters Podcast.
Rana: Thank you for having me I’m very excited to be here, Paige.
Paige: Yes, me too. Rana, you contacted me forever ago because you listened to the podcast, and you were interested in sharing your own story and talking about the things that you’ve learned along the way. We’re finally able to do that now, and I’m excited to hear what you have to say about what you’ve been through and your story, and to learn from you today. Thanks again for being here.
Rana: Thank you, thanks a lot.
Paige: So tell people why you reached out to me and what we’re trying to accomplish today, sort of broad strokes.
Rana: Ok. First of all I will apologize for my voice. I seem to be coming down with something, so if I have to clear my voice please excuse me. The reason I reached out to you, Paige, is because I work with women who are usually over the age of thirty, if not forty and fifty. I really wanted everybody to know that there is food freedom after the age of thirty, forty, or fifty. So many of these women come to me feeling ashamed and feeling like they’re all alone, feeling like they should be over their food issues, feeling like people don’t take their food struggles seriously or wouldn’t take them seriously; and mostly, feeling like it might be too late – that they’ve had these issues forever, and, “oh my gosh, is this going to be life? Is it too late for me? Are these patterns too ingrained in me? What if I’m never free?”. As somebody who didn’t find my freedom until after the age of forty, I want to say - I struggled for over twenty-five years. I found my freedom, I found my peace of mind, and I want anybody out there who is in middle age or above who’s struggling with these issues to know that they’re not alone and that there is absolutely
Paige: Oh, that’s such an important message and I’m so excited to talk about it. That’s something that I haven’t talked about yet on my podcast. I don’t listen to a bunch of other podcasts like mine just because I need a break from this type of stuff on my personal time, but - I haven’t seen that being talked about much. Ya, I’m excited for you to share with us your own story and then also talk about what you do to help other women - that’s really really important. So, quick question about what you just said: I think it’s important to set the stage and just talk about why is there this sort of extra layer of shame when you’re a bit older struggling with these things? I have some ideas as to why, but what’s your observation or your thoughts on that?
Rana: I can say from my own personal experience, and it’s been echoed in all of my clients, that - I work with women who are the ones who say “I’ve accomplished all these other things in my life, I’ve done things in my life, I’ve had a family, I’ve gotten a degree, I’ve built a business or created a business, and I look on the outside like I have my stuff together. I do, and I’ve created discipline and habits in all these other areas, and this is one area where I just can’t seem to pull myself together.” These are their words and my words, so that’s how we feel. “Why can’t I get it together? What is wrong with me?” I think there’s that level of it. I also think that when it comes to the broad spectrum of what we’re calling “eating disorders” including “binge eating disorder” or those who talk about “food addiction”, there’s a lot of focus on teenage girls and college girls. It’s seen as a vanity issue. Women over a particular age think, “People would think that I should be over this by now. I should get over it. It’s embarrassing that I still struggle with something that’s seen” - you know, this myth that this is only a young woman’s issue.
Paige: I think that’s true. I think that’s true age-wise, I think that’s true demographic-wise, ethnicity, race, right? I mean there’s sort of this idea in people’s minds of who it’s socially acceptable to struggle with food, and who it’s just like, “Oh, get over yourself.” Right? There’s sort of that attitude of “Oh, come one, you’re too old for that.”
Rana: Exactly. I said that to myself too for many years “Come on, Rana, it’s- you’re too old for this crap. Get over it.”
Paige: I have women in my office who say the exact same thing. In fact, it’s so interesting we’re talking about this right now, because I have in my queue of articles that I’m going to write - one of them is - the title is going to be, “To the Older Women with an Eating Disorder”.
This is a problem in the research, too, Rana. There’s so much research going into full-blown eating disorders and teenagers and things like that. But what about the people who don’t have a full-blown eating disorder, but just really struggle chronically with dieting and restricting and falling into these cycles that are so unhealthy? Sometimes it feels like there’s this full-blown effort which I don’t think shouldn’t be there - I think there should be a full-blown effort toward figuring out the best way to intervene and manage and treat eating disorders, but what about all these people who struggle so much but don’t have that clear-cut diagnosis? That’s true with diagnoses, that’s true with age, that’s true with all the different things we talked about. There’s this disconnect in research and also in resources sometimes, too - where you feel like you’re alone because you don’t fit that mold of someone who looks like they “should” be struggling. This is true for men too, gosh. Men who struggle have a big barrier to cross in terms of finding care and treatment that’s right for them.
Rana: Absolutely. You mentioned something very important: that unfortunately it’s a double-edged sword. The research is really focused on the younger crowd, but part of that is because women who are older and struggling with this - they don’t speak up. We have to speak up; we have to start talking about this. We have to start putting ourselves out there so that we can be recognized and so that maybe then there would be more research. You know what I mean? It’s a “chicken or the egg.” Unless we start talking about it and drawing attention to it, then there isn’t going to be many people out there to research - because we've been hiding. When I was going through this in my twenties, eating disorders were much much less talked about. I didn’t know about bulimia, for example, after my binging - when I started purging I didn’t know much about bulimia. I didn’t hear it talked about. We didn’t have the internet; I could go on google and say “What is wrong with me?” Those of us in the older generations are still feeling as though what we’ve pitted so long, how do we come out now?
Paige: Yes. With all of that, let’s talk about your story and talk about how you got to where you are now - sort of what things were like for you as a kid: with food, with body image, and all of that stuff.
Rana: Oh, goodness: my love story. *laughs* that’s how I feel. I love food. It really starts going back as far back as I can remember - I loved food. It was something to look forward to. I remember going out to eat - maybe being five, six years old - and demanding to eat from the adult menu because there just wasn’t enough food on the kid’s menu. I remember being laughed at and people - the adults around me - were always amused, saying “Oh, you can’t eat that much.” I’d eat it all and they’d just be amazed. I was praised for my healthy appetite. It wasn’t a problem back then because I was an otherwise healthy kid. One side of my family was more of the slender type, and very picky eaters - that my appetite, my love of vegetables and all types of adult foods including the sweets and desserts was something that they saw as something good. How much I could eat at my friends’ houses - whenever I went over to friends’ houses as a kid. I remember hoping that they’d have snacks and baked goods and candy and that I’d get to eat things there. I didn’t really recognize that I was a big eater, that it wasn’t necessarily something “praise-worthy” until I got to the age where I went to friends’ houses to eat dinner: that’s where they would put food on my plate and I didn’t think it was enough and I would want seconds and thirds and I would notice that it wasn’t - *laughs* - I didn’t get the praise. It was kind of - you know how as a kid you can’t really interpret it, but you know that you feel like you’re doing something wrong by asking for more helpings. I remember that.
Paige: Pretty much as early as you can remember, is that right?
Paige: Looking back with your adult brain, do you think some of that had to do with the praise you got, or was it just the way you worked? Where do you think that come from for you?
Rana: I honestly have pondered this question, Paige. I’m not sure. I’m really not sure. I really really loved food. If we want to get into what some of the therapists I visited for many years say, it could be. As you know, there’s a really high correlation between sexual abuse and eating disorders in women. I was sexually abused beginning at a very young age.
Paige: I’m so sorry about that.
Rana: Ya, I don’t have any issues talking about it, and I think that would be like a whole other topic, but there have been times that I’ve wondered, “Was something going on there where food was a comfort and something to look forward too?” Because I was so young and it was about as far back as I can remember. I don’t know if it’s connected to that or just because I really really loved food. Maybe I am just one of those people. My brother is someone who couldn’t care less about food and often forgets to eat, [but] I was the complete opposite. I really don’t know.
Paige: Okay. Maybe a combination of a lot of things, plus personality, plus the praise you got, plus a coping mechanism, and a messy mix of a bunch of other things too.
Rana: Absolutely. I think there’s a lot to be explored in those areas.
Paige: Okay. As early as you can remember. Then what happened as you went into high school age and things like that?
Rana: Well, my food habits and how I was eating and how much I was eating didn’t start to become a problem until I was in eighth grade. That’s when things really really got out of control - where I was coming home from school and the first thing I’d do is make these huge amounts of food - typically popcorn. I drenched things in butter, poured sugar over them. I was spending all of my allowance on food. This is the time when I knew that I had to hide the evidence - I just knew because it really didn’t feel right that I was spending my entire allowance on food and candy bars. I had to start hiding it. That was the big year, because -
Paige: Secrecy is a big deal. I have said this before on the podcast but - secrets make us sick.
Rana: Absolutely. I started feeling like I could not stop eating. All I wanted to ever do was eat. The difference was that I was eating more and more, and eating really fast. That’s really when it started to feel more out of control. I knew that it just felt really good, it was something to look forward to - to come home and to binge.
Paige: Was this like an everyday thing?
Rana: Yes. Yes. It really was. I could do my homework, I could do everything else after I had my fix. I was home alone, so it was easy for me to do this, and my dad would come home from work and we’d have a huge dinner, and then typically there was always something after dinner that I was snacking on as well. There were many years, Paige where I didn’t even ever get hungry because I didn’t stop eating long enough to get hungry.
Paige: I think a lot of us have been there - where you’re like “What is hunger? I don’t even know if I’ve ever experienced that.” Were you scared of the feeling of hunger? Did that give you anxiety to think about hunger? Or was it not at all a hunger-fullness thing?
Rana: Not at all. Didn’t even think about it. The only time I really started thinking about - “Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” - was when I started putting on a lot of weight. I started putting it on fast, which shouldn’t be a big deal, I get that. But it was something that was all of a sudden a source of concern from my family. They knew already that I was constantly eating and the quantities were getting larger. I’d get up from the dinner table haven eaten a full course meal - and our meals were always accompanied by bread - and an hour later I’d put the tea kettle on the stove and take a tray to my room with toast, cheese, jam, and other goodies, and it started being a problem. I started getting criticized, and it hurt.
Paige: I wonder if your parents just felt like they didn’t know what to do. Because they could see that something was happening, but that’s so paralyzing to not know exactly how to handle it. Who knows how to handle that with their sweet baby whom they love?
Rana: True, they had a legitimate concern. Unfortunately, there wasn’t as much awareness, and I grew up in Turkey where there’s still very little awareness of these kinds of food and weight issues. They were very concerned. I remember getting to a point where I said “Okay, I need to diet.” I didn’t know what I was doing. I was restricting - suddenly I went from eating this tremendous amount of food to thinking that I had to restrict. I would lose the weight and everything would be hunky-dory. My dad, to his credit, said “If you just ate normally you’d be healthy and you would lose the weight.” I had no idea what that meant.
Paige: You didn’t have a concept of normal eating, I’m sure.
Rana: No, I had no clue. I didn’t even know what that meant. I went on my first diet at age sixteen. That was more a way to “Okay, this is going to control my eating. And I’m going to lose weight so I’m not called fat all the time anymore.” I got called worse than that by my family
members to be honest with you: things that I don’t even want to mention on the podcast.
Paige: What do you think that was about? Was that an effort to motivate in a weird way? If you can just take off your hat of feeling sad about the things they said and put on the hat of “why? What was the reason behind it?” Do you have any ideas or insight?
Rana: Sure. One thing I know is that I was loved dearly by every one of these people who said anything. They absolutely adore me and love me and wanted the best for me. They thought they were motivating me. It’s a little bit cultural as well: I grew up in Turkey. We don’t hold back criticism there. It was - you say things like this and you criticize the people you love because you love them - that’s the way you show that you care. I know that they meant well. It was their way of saying “you have to do something about this.”
Paige: It can be so different culturally. I remember I studied abroad in Thailand, and this is unrelated, but - every time I would walk into a store to pick up a shirt or buy some shorts or something, the little Thai ladies would be like, “Oh, here’s the extra extra large size for you.” I was like “Wow, that would not be how you would try to sell something to someone in the U.S.”. Anyway - culturally, that’s something I learned. It’s just very different. We do things differently in different cultures in regards to food and weight and body image. There’s different things that are okay and not okay to say. It makes me laugh when I think about my Thailand experience. I was extra extra large compared to most of the Thai people.
Rana: Compared to them, yes. I think that there’s a balance to be struck. Having experienced American and what I would say is a Mediterranean culture, and - the difference between the two of them - they’re very much more communal there. Giving somebody criticism is considered loving. There’s no such thing as “oh well that person is doing what they’re doing, it’s their life, it’s none of my business.” That’s completely foreign to them. Here, in my American family, I do see that sometimes you do need a family member to point something out to you. We all have blind spots, we all do. There are times when I wish that in my family more people would step up and interfere and show that they cared and point something out to another loved one rather than just stand back and watch somebody do something really destructive or disconcerting to themselves. I think we need to strike a balance between the two. You know what I mean?
Paige: I think that’s always the answer. I know that’s a black-and-white statement to say “it’s always the answer,” but that’s just what things keep coming back to for me in my life and in my work. It’s nine times out of ten the answer is “how can we strike a balance here between this extreme and that extreme?” I love that you brought in that cultural difference and I’m sure that a lot of people in cultures where they’re very open with their criticism probably internalize a lot of shame around that but don’t really feel comfortable talking about it. Here we are in the U.S. like “Oh, this makes me so sad I’m going to be so emotional about this and let’s talk about vulnerability.” Especially in our current culture where we’re all about expressing that. Maybe there is a balance to that for various individuals.
Rana: Absolutely. This is where we can talk about - where you said vulnerability, the way I saw those comments - we all know it’s how we interpret certain comments and what we do with it. Looking back, I know that now. I didn’t know it at the time but I took those because of all kinds of other issues in my life and what happened to me up until that point in my life, those comments were devastating to me. They made me feel like I was failing my family. I was disappointing them, I was an embarrassment, and all I wanted was my father’s approval. The way I took those comments was completely different than say my sixteen-year-old younger sister, who grew up in the same environment, would take them. If she was ever told “It looks like you’ve put on a couple of pounds, you better watch it there”, her response - it would be totally different and it is different. She couldn’t care less. It wasn’t devastating to her, and so her experience of these things is completely different because she grew up in a different environment with different experiences earlier in her life.
Paige: Right. And like you said, you were trying to seek approval and get this message from people you loved that you were okay. When someone criticizes you weight, that’s sort of communicating, “hey, you’re not okay.” Especially when you’re in that vulnerable state of, “oh my gosh, I feel like I’m not okay.” And that just reconfirms that [state].
Rana: Yes. Exactly.
Paige: So, what happened until things started to turn around for you? Can you summarize? I know that’s a lot of years, but -
Paige: - Summarize what went on the next few decades?
Rana: I think as you said, it can be a very very long story. The dieting, needless to say, was not successful at all. Whatever you define as “success”, it did not stop me from obsessing about food. If anything, I had the typical boomerang effect and continued binge eating. I would diet and then I would binge eat. By the time I got to college, I was a very good student - in every other area - I was always trying to be perfect - I wanted to be the perfect student. I worked my way through college and was a waitress and yet I still was continually binging or dieting. I’d fail in dieting, so I’d say “screw it” and I’d go through a period of binging. When I couldn’t stand how much weight I was gaining and I’d be afraid of going to visit my family in Turkey, I would say “Oh my gosh, I have to lose weight.” It wasn’t until I was twenty-four years old that I was despondent that I didn’t seem to even be able to diet anymore. I just couldn’t stop eating again. I had discovered a few years before that if I ate enough, I would get sick. Beyond a certain point, I would get sick. I remember thinking, “I wish I could just do that again. I wish I could just make myself purge.” That’s when I started to do that and I thought that was the solution. My initial thought about that was “Oh my gosh, I’ve finally found the solution.” We all know what happens after that. It puts you deeper and deeper into a spiral that - I always say “I rue the day that I discovered I could do that.” I didn’t know any other way. I didn’t know how to get help for what I believe was my “real” problem. My problem wasn’t dieting and wanting to be thin, my problem was “I can’t stop eating. I don’t know how to control this appetite that never seems to go away.” As the years wore on, I was a normal weight. I did not show up as somebody who looked like I had an eating disorder, that’s for sure. People were always amazed at my appetite and how I could stay slender. I didn’t look like somebody who had an eating disorder, that’s for sure.
Paige: Okay. I hope that nobody takes that the wrong way. It’s scary to talk about these things because you don’t want anyone to feel like you’re giving someone ideas or encouraging certain behaviors. I’ve actually had a lot of people who have had the opposite experience, where the purging behavior actually for one reason or another - we could try to define why, but anyway -
Rana: I see what you’re saying Paige, but it backfired tremendously badly. It is a terrible, terrible, terrible idea.
Paige: Let’s just be clear that when we’re saying “worked”, both of us are feel are using our little air quotes because the goal is not “weight loss at all costs”. Obviously, if you’ve ever listened to this podcast you know that that’s not at all what we’re talking about here. But, in your mind at the time, that was your mindset, right? It was sort of “life or death, I need to lose weight so that people love me and I fit in and blah blah blah”. I just want to be clear to anyone listening, we’re not really trying to say that “work” or “not work” in regards to weight loss is the ultimate indicator of how you’re doing in life. Does that make sense?
Rana: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s the worst thing I ever did. It cost me a lot. It cost me a lot. I was miserable.
Paige: Tell me about it.
Rana: Well, within a year or two I can say that I was in a terrible place because I felt trapped. I felt very trapped. I couldn’t think of much else. I was in school and I graduated from college and I was a pre-med student, I had wanted to go to medical school. I gave up that dream because I thought so low of myself. I was in a very very dark, low place where I felt like I couldn’t control myself. I didn’t just have this eating problem but now I had this problem of - I didn’t know how to not get rid of the food. It was the worst thing that could have ever happened to me, Paige. I tell the women I work with who dare to say “I considered purging”, [that] “that is the worst thing you could do.” It is terrible. I went into a free fall after that. I really lost myself for a few years, and then I got to a point where I almost accepted it. As if “this is my life.” I learned how to maintain myself during the day and do the things that I needed to do as far as work goes only because I had my evening binges to look forward to. I could white-knuckle because once I got home I could binge and “get my fix,” so to speak. That was my life for many, many years.
Paige: A word you just said stood out to me. You just said “I almost accepted it.” I think we think of the word “accepting” as if it’s “resigning”, but I actually think - and I don’t want to tell you your own story, so definitely chime in here, but - I actually think that “acceptance” is a crucial part of change. I don’t think you really change until you really accept the reality of where you are. That doesn’t mean that you don’t try to make a change. I think that’s just what opens the door to really looking at things honestly and saying “yep, this is where I am I’m accepting that. And I’m also going to move forward differently.” You know? What do you think, though?
Rana: I think you’re right in the sense that that’s where - the “acceptance” that you’re speaking about is where I got to many many years later. When I say “accepted” I think I was resigned in my late twenties and early thirties. I resigned myself to the fact that this was going to be life. I’d go to work, I’d do whatever I needed to do, I had some friends, I had my daytime life, and I was resigned to the fact - because I didn’t know how to become free - I was resigned to the fact that I was going to binge eat every night. I was resigned to it.
Paige: That’s a pretty low place to be, I would imagine.
Rana: I was very very depressed. I had seen counselors and therapists throughout this time, and all of this time they told me I was depressed and anxious. I probably had been for many years. It also ran in my family - clinical depression. I was under the impression - and I feel like I was given the impression - that the reason I was eating and the reason I couldn’t control my eating was because I was depressed and anxious. It wasn’t until many many years later - so there was a huge focus on treating the depression, and it wasn’t until almost a decade later where I said “you know, what? No. This isn’t working for me. I am not depressed and anxious because of my food problem. It’s the other way around. The food problem is causing the depression and the anxiety. It’s not the depression and anxiety causing the food problem. That’s what I had to accept.
Paige: Okay. So anything you want to fill us in from that time until when the change started to happen? I really want to hear about how you turned things around. It’s important to understand this whole struggle and the whole context of the complete and utter resignation to the fact that “whatever, this is just me. I’m never going to change and I’m going to be this” - probably I would guess that you felt like you were living two lives. One that people could see and then one that you were doing in secret and alone. Glennon Doyle Melton in her book Love Warrior talks about the representative - you said you sent out into the world. That’s what that’s making me think of - you sent your best representative out there and then it was just this probably really difficult thing to deal with in your alone time, in your down time.
Rana: I spent over a decade feeling like an utter fraud. On top of it, I was very much into fitness and “health” - I’m putting that into air quotes, too - because I always thought that’s where the solution would be. If I just learned more about nutrition and I learned more about fitness, then I would be able to learn how to eat better and learn how to control my appetite, and everything would be great. I actually ended up quitting my corporate life in 2005 in pursuing a diploma in fitness and nutrition, thinking that was going to quote unquote “fix me.” I started working as a trainer and I felt like such a fraud because I was still not well - and not practicing what I preached. None of my friends new that I was struggling. Worst of all, my own husband - I met my husband in 2003 and I was living with him in a 1000-square-foot condo and binging every single day every single night, and he didn’t have a clue for seven years.
Rana: That’s how secret I was. I was completely undercover. Anybody who looked at me thought “oh, well Rana - she’s healthy and she has her stuff together.” They didn’t know that I was secretly suffering and that I felt like somebody who did not have her stuff together at all. I felt ashamed.
Paige: What does that do to you when you get all this praise for being a certain way that you don’t really think is true or you know isn’t true?
Rana: Horrible.”I’m not worthy. If only they knew I’m a fraud.” I think that had more of an impact on me as I - now I’m getting into my late thirties and I’m feeling worse and worse about myself. I started isolating myself more. Social events became scarier. The amounts of food that I wanted to satisfy my cravings were getting to be larger and larger. I was becoming embarrassed, and the praise or any kind of regard for myself - first of all, my confidence was decimated, my own self esteem. Knowing that I was presenting this face to people and not being real was just more reason for me to beat myself up. I was incredibly ashamed. My husband - I just love him so much - the kindest, most tolerable person ever - lying to him, that started taking a toll. I was literally lying to him, it wasn’t just omission. I would say I was going somewhere, and actually where I was going was to binge. It took a toll, for sure.
Paige: For you, did that just perpetuate the bingeing? All the shame and guilt makes you say well “screw it all - I’m already a monster so let’s just keep doing this behavior”.
Rana: Shame absolutely fuels the cycle. The more shame I started experiencing, the more stuck I became until it got to a point where it was really debilitating and affecting all areas of life. It was affecting my marriage, my career goals, my social life, time management - you name it. I was not a very nice person to be around. I really wasn’t. I started isolating and drawing into myself. It wasn’t a good place to be.
Paige: I want to pause for a second and say thank you for sharing all of that. I know that this is going to be hard for some people to listen to. It might bring some things up for people. Anyway -
Rana: I do want to get to the good parts.
Paige: Exactly - that’s where I was headed next. I did want to give you a bunch of credit for being willing to share all of that. That’s not easy to talk about those things in such detail.
Rana: We need to!
Paige: Well we do. And I know that that is going to help people feel less alone. That’s really the goal of this episode. Talk about when things started to turn around for you. I’m really on the edge of my seat to hear about what worked for you and what path you took. Go ahead and start talking, and I’ll ask questions along the way.
Rana: Sure. I always say first of all, it’s not a linear path. I’m not a woo-woo person. I was raised in a house where my dad’s a physicist and all this, so - I’m totally all about science. But I literally heard a voice one day. I swear I heard a voice as if it was somebody whispering in my ear. It happened when my husband was out of town. He was on a trip, and he was going for a few days. Those were the times when I usually - I could have thirteen, fourteen hours straight of binging. I wouldn’t even notice the time passing. It was like I was a zombie and I could not stop eating. It was getting alarming and I was so afraid that I was going to die. I hate to put it this way, but let’s face it - it’s very dangerous. Bingeing and purging are very very dangerous. I was afraid; I would go to the bathroom with the phone next to me because I thought, “I might need to call 911. I don’t know if I need to call 911” and yet I still couldn’t stop myself. It was one of those weekends that he was out of town that - I was in the bathroom, I was laying on the floor, I was crying, I was looking up at the ceiling and thinking, “Is my husband going to come home and find me dead?” I hate to put it that way, but that was my fear. I heard a voice. The voice said, “You are going to overcome this. When you do, you’re going to speak up and help other people.” I remember, the first thing that came into my mind was remembering that I had read Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and how she had talked about an “awakening in the bathroom and hearing a voice”. I thought “Oh great, now I’m hearing voices and I must be going crazy.”
Paige: Glennon Doyle Melton has the same bathroom story. She finds out she’s pregnant in the bathroom and has her rock bottom moment. She finds out she’s pregnant as she’s throwing up from being hungover, or something along those lines. Anyway, that’s funny. Okay, keep going.
Rana: Yes, I did. I heard that voice and I thought, “Okay, I have to do something.” I believed that voice and it gave me hope. It sounds crazy. I knew that it wasn’t my thoughts - it was a voice. My first order of business was that I had to tell my husband. It was really difficult for me to seek the help that I needed to seek when I was still hiding. My husband knew that I was going to therapy but I couldn’t tell him what it was for. I couldn’t get other resources together. I was always hiding my eating disorder and personal development books. I said “Okay, I’ve got to tell him.” I planned it ahead of time and I told my husband. Mainly, I realized that I had to do something different. I was feeling very physically weak. I started exercising and I got a structured meal plan that wasn’t about calorie-counting or anything. I really felt like initially, I needed to learn how to eat differently. I remember saying, “I don’t care what happens with my body. I truly don’t care, as long as I feel good. I just want to feel good I want to feel strong.” I felt so weak. “I want to feel strong and I want to feel good.” I started taking actions in that direction. That’s not to say that I didn’t still struggle. At the time, I thought that day when I heard the voice was going to be my rock bottom, but I had a lot more rough days and periods after that that I had to overcome. It was not an easy road. I feel like what I do now is I’ve taken everything that I’ve learned on my own - and once I figured out where the solution really was - you know I wasted a lot of time looking in all the wrong places. I sought out twelve-step programs, I sought every kind of spiritual avenue you could think of, I looked at holistic doctors, I worked with therapists, I did a lot of things. Yet I still wasn’t taking some of the actions that I believe were truly necessary to change the underlying mindset and beliefs that I had about food, body image, weight, and my freedom. I think I still had in the back of my mind this idea that I was going to have a white-knuckling freedom or I was just going to learn how to manage to live with the never-ending desire for food. Does any of this make sense? I could go on and on and I’m sure that you can point me into whichever direction or area of that that you want me to talk a little more about.
Paige: I think it’s important to talk about the fact that you sought out various avenues that weren’t the right choices or the right avenues for you. I think that’s an important thing to talk about, and voice that sometimes you have to hit a lot of walls to know what’s wrong for you so that you can find what does work. I’m interested to hear specifically - where did the answers lie? You said that you found that, I haven’t quite heard where yet and how yet. I’m interested to know.
Rana: I was focusing a lot on food and exercise and my body and stopping the urges. What I started doing, Paige, was - I came across this book called You Are Not Your Brain by Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz. I was amazed at two things, first of all at the information but then I was also amazed - it had never occurred to me before, because in college I had taken brain physiology classes. What it had amounted to was - I didn’t want to believe that I had a disease anymore, I didn’t want to believe that I was powerless. Learning about the brain made me realize that this really was a habit. It was a terrible conditioned habit, not just in my behaviors but stemming from a lot of the thoughts and feelings that I was having. Thoughts create feelings create actions, and I learned what neuroplasticity was - which is basically that our brains are plastic and we think that we can’t change certain things - we think that we are who we are and we’ll just keep doing the things that we do when it comes to certain aspects of us, and nothing could be further from the truth. We can change our brains, and it begins with learning how to think a different way. That was one thing that I had to learn. Another thing that I had to learn - and this is very much related to thoughts and feelings and actions, is - I had to learn to absolutely refuse to beat myself up. Up until this point until a couple of years after I was still trying to find my freedom and trying to do all the right things when it came to diet and excersize and nutrition and all of this - I was still beating myself up and counting days that I was binge-free, and feeling like I was back at square one when I slipped and beating myself up, which could throw me that shame again, the self-recrimination, could throw me right back into the cycle for several days if not weeks and months. I had to learn to absolutely refuse to beat myself up.
Paige: Bullying doesn’t work. It’s just not functional.
Rana: It’s a totally counter-productive thing and that’s one of the hardest things to realize is accepting a slip or accepting that you weren’t perfect, and being compassionate with ourselves about it and learning to move on. Learning to see a mistake as, “OK, what did I learn from this? How can I do better next time?” Without beating ourselves up, without shaming ourselves. That was a tremendous learning experience for me and it was an exercise - I had a compassion exercise that I had to do over and over and over again before I finally experienced the freedom. It was what I called the “paradox of self-acceptance”: any time I slipped or I felt I did something “wrong” or had an urge, I had to accept myself and give myself permission to mess up in that moment. So many people think “oh my gosh”, but if I did that and I accepted and I didn’t beat myself up after a binge, then I would just be giving myself permission to keep binging, right? That’s just not true. The more you accept it, the less you end up engaging in the behavior that you don’t want to engage. It was all of these tricks of different thinking styles that - I always say you have to learn how to change your thoughts, and it’s a skill. It’s like learning another language, it’s like learning anything else that you’ve learned in your life that takes repeated practice and persistence and tenacity and never giving up no matter what happens. Eventually, you learn to think a different way, you learn to become someone else in a way. I focused on what was within my control, and that was certain habits of mindset practices and habits, and to learn to take the focus on the scale and just focus on what I could do and give myself credit every single day for the things that I was doing to progress on the road to complete and total wellness. The scale was never a measure of that.
Paige: Here’s what I’m hearing so far. Let me make sure I’m hearing it right. You tried a bunch of different things, ran into some brick walls along the way, and then the thing that started to work well for you was little mindset shifts, one of the big things being realizing that bullying isn’t working for you and that you had to be your own best friend and have your own best interests in mind and to make sure you were being kind and compassionate with yourself when things didn’t go exactly as planned because it’s not a question of “if” it’s a question of “when”, right? We all fall short. Anything else that I’m not summarizing well here?
Rana: No, I think you’ve summarized it very well. I would have to say too, just realizing that there are no quick fixes and that I was 100% responsible. There was nothing or no one or anything that was going to save me or free me until I chose to change my mind and do the work that was involved in doing that. I was the only person who could do it. A lot of my clients who struggle with this notion of doing certain mindset practices to change their thoughts, because they think “I’ve tried that and it didn’t work. I still binged. I used this tool and I used meditation or I used visualization or I did the thinking practice and it didn’t work because I binged” The key is you just have to keep doing it.
Paige: The behaviors are a little less important that the intentions, right? I think behaviors come a little bit more naturally when you’re able to shift your way of talking to yourself, and your mindset. It’s so much more intuitive to take really good care of yourself when you’re coming from this mindset of “Man! I love myself, I’m trying hard, and I fall short sometimes, but I’m doing my very best.” That is a whole lot easier to say, “Let’s make this-and-this choice in my own best interests, versus, “Man, I’m a terrible person, so screw it all.” You know?
Rana: Exactly. And learning the difference between beating myself up and yet knowing, “I can do better.” I think that tension we experience is when we’re out of alignment and we know “I can do better here. There’s something different that I could have done, what was it?” It’s OK to self-reflect, it’s OK to give yourself feedback without beating the crap out of yourself.
Paige: You have to think about how you’d give someone you love feedback. You’d say it gently and you’d make sure they know that you know how hard they’re trying and they’re a great person in so many ways, but here’s one thing to think about. You’d say it like that, you wouldn’t just scream and yell at them and be like, “You’re the worst person ever!” Why would that work for yourself? I love that you’re talking about what worked for you and I love that you’re not saying, “Oh, this behavior that behavior, this particular meal plan, this quick easy fix.” What you’re talking about is hard work and practicing and a real mindset shift which I think is a realistic way to set some expectations for anyone listening who might be really feeling at their own rock bottom with their own relationship with food. I think you’re describing it in a realistic way. Sometimes we hear “oh it just happened one day and it was so easy and I just stopped the behavior.” You know?
Rana: I’m sure that’s true for some people, but I know that there are women out there who feel like they’ve never experienced a healthy relationship with food. It’s never been a part of their experience. That’s how I feel. I’ve never had a healthy relationship with food. It wasn’t like I did and then at some point I started dieting and then I fell into the rabbit hole. I really had to learn things all over, from the beginning. I know it’s the truth for a few select women that I’ve known of where they say “I just stopped.” But that’s not the majority experience, not in the least.
Paige: One more question for you. Tell me what life is like for you now.
Rana: Paige, I wake up every single morning, even though it’s been a few years that I’ve felt free, I’ve still been in awe of it. I am still in awe of every day that I can wake up and do what I do and not feel in any way obsessed with food. I feel so grateful for being able to eat, and enjoy my food, and not feel deprived. I feel my marriage is a completely different marriage now. My relationships, my social life - I’m almost in a way - and I know that considering everything we’ve covered, this may even come across as trite and “ya, right” but - there is a part of me that is tremendously grateful for the struggles I went through because I learned so many valuable lessons and skills coming out of the struggle and learning how to be free that are still helping me today. They’ve made me so much of a stronger and more courageous person. So I could shout for joy some days, to tell the truth. That’s not to say that every single day that I adore my body or myself or that life is just stress-free and wonderful now. I have had some incredibly big stresses in the last couple of years, but I didn’t have to run to food to settle them. Life still has challenges, but I am happy that I have other ways of looking at matters.
Paige: Anything else that you want to add to your process of finding that food freedom that we’re talking about today?
Rana: If I could sum things up, Paige, really what I would want to convey is: we don’t want to mention this, but this notion that we’re helpless or powerless or that we cannot choose - I mean we may not have chosen to fall into the rabbit hole that we’re in, maybe, for people who are out there feeling like this, of course we don’t choose it, but - the only way to get out of it is you have to make the decision that you want to. That’s really scary because so many women have trouble believing that they can so they don’t dare want their freedom because they don’t believe they can. There’s that obstacle. You have to decide that if you want it, only you can choose to change. Once you make that decision, it’s about learning the practices to cultivate more belief in yourself and to gain more confidence in yourself and learning the skills and becoming a totally different person from the inside. It takes committed, dedicated, consistent practices to become this totally different person from the inside. It’s about focusing on healthier wellness habits and not some number on the scale and not being attached to any particular image. If I could just bring up a quick analogy that I’m reminded of right now that I read yesterday: I read 80% of million-dollar and above lottery winners within five years are dead broke again. I see that as completely predictable, because they haven’t developed the “wealth mindset”. They don’t have the thoughts and the way of being and moving in life that a wealthy person has to have to be able to maintain that wealth. The same thing is true for any women out there that are struggling with dieting, why dieting doesn’t work, and why dieting is an empty promise. If you don’t become a person who wants to take care of herself and wants to be well and is focused on being a person who is happier and well, you will never maintain a particular weight or number or diet. That’s not the solution. The solution is when you become someone different from the inside, that’s when you find true wellness and freedom.
Paige: I agree. One thing that keeps coming to my mind is a lot of work that people need to do in order to be able to do what we’re talking about, here, is a lot of body image work. Like you’ve been saying, when you’re tied to a number on the scale or a certain pant size or a certain figure, it becomes impossible to prioritize your health and wellness over those numbers, right? That always takes precedent. In order to make peace with food, you have to take a good, honest look at how attached you are to various aspects of body image and make peace with the fact that your body knows best, and if you take care of it, you’ll be the exact right weight and shape for you. Some people are naturally larger, some people are naturally smaller, taller, shorter. We need to embrace our differences and embrace different bodies, because that is a sticky spot for so many people. They tie their behaviors of - whether it’s over exercising or purging or dieting - they tie that to the only reason that they’re not they’re worst fear in terms of body image. “The only reason I’m not such-and-such pounds is because I do these behaviors. If I gave these behaviors up, I would be such-and-such pounds.” If you’re thinking that way, that is going to be very difficult to do this work you’re talking about. You did mention in your story, you said, “I got to the point where I just wanted to feel better and I didn’t care about my body.”
Rana: The scale set, yes, I didn’t care. That’s another thing that I would want women to know, is you do not have to begin to love your body image before you start feeling free. It’s about body-love verb. You can behave in ways that are more loving towards your body without necessarily standing in front of the mirror and saying, “Oh my gosh, my body is perfect today!” It’s really about taking the focus completely off what your body looks like and more on how you function as a person and a human being in the world. That’s really the most important part. Pursuing the things and doing the things you want to do with your life, that will gradually begin to build your confidence and self-esteem that have nothing to do with food or weight or body image. For years I waited to pursue my purpose because I thought “I have to be free from this food thing first.” I resisted and I resisted and it was only once I started going out there and doing other things that made me feel really good that I was propelled further into freedom, because there were more important things to think about in my life. It’s totally important to toss the scale, get rid of it, and just try to become the person that you want to be. Take small daily actions and get some support and accountability and help, and you will definitely get there.
Paige: The truth is, there’s many ways to have a relationship with your body. One is loving it and looking in the mirror and saying, “Damn, I’m sexy”, sure, you can do that. For many people listening that’s like “whoa, that’s not going to happen for me.” Sometimes people can feel really intimidated by the idea of loving their body because they’re like “that’s so out of reach for me.” When you start talking about the idea that you can act in ways that show yourself that you love your body, I think that’s beautiful. I would add that maybe just working on a little bit more neutrality is a good place to start, right? Where you’re just noticing and scanning your thoughts and saying, “Whoa that’s a really negative thought about my body, I’m going to choose to not dwell on that, and I’m going to try to replace it with something neutral or - maybe gratitude rather than love love love, you just work on gratitude or neutrality towards your body.
Rana: I couldn’t agree more, Paige. There’s a lot of talk about loving your body. I know that when I was in my dark place, the idea of loving it, if that’s what was required to find freedom from food, I would have been thinking, “well that’s never going to happen. If I have to love my body to find freedom from food, it’s just not going to happen.” What I do try to teach others is forget about that. Just get to a place where you learn to appreciate and be grateful for what your body allows you to do, and that could be called “body neutrality”.
Paige: For sure. One other thought I had as you were talking earlier - this keeps coming up with me and my clients is - for some women, and I don’t want to generalize, this could be men too but - sometimes nutrition and fitness can be sort of like a hobby and it can take up so much of your time and energy and it can become so much a part of your identity that when you’re trying to move away from obsessing about it, whether it’s eating too much, more than you need, not enough, being restrictive, there’s different ways that this can be illustrated, but it’s all the same mentality - sometimes it’s just cool to take a look at “Is this my main focus in life?” If it is, maybe you need to develop some different hobbies. Even if you do this professionally, if you’re a registered dietitian listening or someone like Rana listening, maybe you need to start knitting *laughs*. There’s more to life that this and it’s great and I enjoy it and I love it but I think it’s also easy for it to take over your identity, and in the process you lose yourself. I’m not sure how much that relates to what you’ve said, but it made me think of that.
Rana: Absolutely. The thing is, once you start focusing on other things - some of the women that I work with, they really have to think about “my goodness, without thinking about all of this stuff, what would I be interested in?” they don’t even know and we have to explore that. To me it’s amazing how the more space you open up from the space that used to be occupied with food and weight, is as space opens up you do get more creative and you do figure out “oh my gosh, there are many things that I’d like to do that I’m interested in. They say that you have to let go of the past and let go of these behaviors before you can reach for something else, but I always say “Well we have two hands. If you’re holding on to these eating patterns and these food obsessions with one hand, you still having another hand to start grabbing onto something else with even if you haven’t completely let go of the food and weight stuff yet.” As you begin to look for other things to grab onto, you will gradually find the things that you want to hold onto with both hands so that you will let go of the food and weight stuff. That’s what happened to me.
Paige: That’s a beautiful image. I like that description a lot. Awesome. Do you want to add anything else? Have we left any holes in your story or anything else you’d like to say? If not, I’d like to hear you say what you want women over the age of forty who feel like they’re struggling to know or any person of any age, really, but we’re talking specifically to that group today.
Rana: I think that - we could go on and on and on, there’s so much else I could talk about and I’m definitely going to write a book someday, Paige. That’s on my list of dreams and ambitions and purposes to complete. If I could get on a soap box I would want to go out and scream “Do not diet, stop with the diets, stop focusing on the nutrition, stop focusing on what you’re doing wrong. Start focusing on what you need to do to change the way you think. That’s really where freedom is, is in learning how to think a completely different way than what you’re used to thinking.” I know that so many women don’t want to hear that that’s a solution. They still want to say “Just give me a solution, give me a diet that will make me better.” There isn’t one. There just is not. Get rid of your skills and figure out and find the people out there who can help you with learning how to create the right mindset and foundation of thinking so that then if you want to learn how to eat if you want to learn how to take better care of yourself, you have at least that sturdy foundation to stand on. It’s all in learning how to think.
Paige: I agree. I did all this training in nutrition and so excited to get out there and change the world, and then I start doing my work and I realize, “this is definitely more than just carbs fats and proteins” this mindset thing is so important and it’s the reason I have taken a different turn in terms of focusing my practice on healing your relationship with food rather than doing the dry nutrition therapy-type thing. Trying to do the therapeutic work in healing your entire relationship with food, because there’s so much more to it.
Rana: What you’re doing is incredibly important, Paige. We do have to learn how to eat. If you’ve always struggled, you have to learn how to e