A calorie-tracking app gave me an eating disorder #HealthAndFitnessWeek

We spoke to Sarah (not her real name), a 23-year-old woman from the Midlands who found herself suffering from bulimia after she started using an app to track her calorie intake. Here’s what she told us (some details changed to protect Sarah’s identity).

It was on Christmas Day that I knew I had a problem. Kneeling on a towel in my parents’ bathroom, throwing up the sprouts and Yorkshire puds my mum had slaved over for hours. I felt disgusting. I was tired, my throat hurt, my eyes were watering and I just wanted to go back to normal.

Over the days, weeks and months of my disorder, I’d developed strategies to hide what I was up to. I started showering twice as often, because if I was in the bathroom with the shower running, no one could hear me throwing up or question why I’d been gone so long. I had a bucket in my bedroom. I knew in great detail which toilets at home and work and my friends’ houses – even pubs, bars and restaurants – had strong enough flushes to get rid of vomit, and how many would require disguising with toilet roll or extra flushes. Throwing up in the grotty, urine-stained toilet at the train station was a particular low point, but I was so ill that I stared at a hair on the rim to make me feel sicker and throw up more. I can’t believe that now, but at the time it seemed like a good way to get more food up.

I often wondered how I’d got to this point. And the truth is, it was trying to help myself that made me ill in the first place.

“She’s let herself go”

I’ve always thought of myself as a size 10. That’s the size I was at school and uni, and it’s only in the two years since graduation that I’ve gained weight. When I started using the calorie app, I was a size 18. I don’t know how I got to that point – probably a combination of moving back home when I finished uni (my mum loves to feed us, and I was more than happy to eat it all), not doing any exercise, and comfort eating to hide the fact I was unhappy at not having a career.

The tipping point came when I met up with a friend from school. We were doing our usual bitching about all the people we’d grown up with, and she mentioned a girl from our form who had ballooned from a size 12 to a 16. “She’s really let herself go, it’s embarrassing,” my friend commented offhandedly. A 16. A size smaller than me. I felt sick.

When I got home, I searched online to find free weight loss solutions (I didn’t have any money because I wasn’t working, so I didn’t want to do one of the clubs you have to pay for). I found a free app that let you set a daily calorie limit and track your food and exercise every day. I worked out my limit based on my size and how much I wanted to lose, and started tracking my food.

The first stone

At first, it wasn’t that bad. I learnt a whole lot about how much fat was in all my favourite foods, and I realised I’d been eating something like 3500 calories a day. I couldn’t believe how much was in wine and beer, or the ready meals I grazed on when my mum wasn’t around to cook. I stopped buying crisps, chocolate and sweets, and tried to stick to my daily limit.

Three months later, I’d lost a stone. It was slow going, and really hard, but it was working. I felt so much better about myself, and that confidence helped me approach someone I liked. We started dating, and that’s when it started to fall apart.

When you’re just starting to see someone, you go out a lot – dinner, drinks, the cinema – and I didn’t feel like I could refuse to eat. I know I should have just made smarter choices, but refusing a big bucket of sweet popcorn seemed like too much of a compromise, so I did it anyway. When I put the food into the app and saw how far over my limit I was, I wanted to take it all back – to un-eat it. And that’s when I thought about throwing up.

Staring at the toilet bowl

The first time I tried it, nothing happened. I knew from TV that you stick your fingers down your throat, but that just made me drool down my arm and feel stupid. I couldn’t get anything to come up. The second time I tried, I’d had so much food that it came up easier – but still didn’t seem anywhere near the amount I’d eaten. I tried to convince myself food has a smaller volume when it’s been all chewed up, but I didn’t really believe it.

So I Googled ‘bulimia tips’. And I found loads. [Sarah goes into detail here about the exact methods and techniques she learnt, but ShinyShiny has chosen not to reproduce them in case they influence people to do the same.]

Now, I could throw up quicker (but it still took too long when I was out with friends, I had a few concerned comments about ‘stomach problems’) and get more out, though it never seemed enough. I’d make bargains with myself: “three more substantial vomits and you can stop”. “Just try once more and then you can rest.” It felt like my disorder talking to me, cajoling me, encouraging me to take more and more out of my body until I felt empty enough. It was exhausting, and I was so bored with looking at the inside of a toilet.

Throwing up was physically draining – my eyes would go red and water. I got spots around my mouth from where the vomit touched my skin on the way out. The back sides of my front teeth actually started dissolving from all the stomach acid hitting them. And I got the classic bulimia ‘chipmunk cheeks’ caused by swollen salivary glands. I was throwing up to try and make myself look better, but while my weight was going down slowly, the rest of me was getting worse. I looked haggard, with thin hair and dry skin, and even my hands started to go crepey and wrinkled.

Every time I went out, I’d panic about where and when I could throw up. I was still tracking everything I ate in the app, but my favourite part of the day was ‘undoing’ some of the calories in my log when I’d thrown them up. At one point, I actually thought there should be a button for ‘I vomited this’ in the app, to save me time. It was that ordinary to me.

As I got ‘better’ at throwing up, the symptoms got worse, until one day I burst a blood vessel in my eye. I didn’t realise I’d done it at the time – I didn’t look in the mirror, and I was very used to feelings of pressure in my eyes [vomiting vastly increases the amount of pressure in the head, which can cause vessels to burst], so I just walked out as normal. Then my dad saw me. “What the hell happened to you?” – I thought he meant my eyes were red and watery, so I said I’d watched a sad film and cried. He seemed far too concerned, mentioning going to the doctor’s, so I quickly excused myself to look in the mirror. My left eye was bright, angry red, full of blood. I looked like I’d been punched. I couldn’t believe my dad had bought the story about crying – it seemed so obvious that something had happened. I resolved to stop throwing up. But I still didn’t.

A dangerous routine

After my burst blood vessel, I tried to stop throwing up for a few days. But I couldn’t. I’d got used to my routine of eating as I always had – adding more, in fact – and feeling like it was fine because I could just “press undo” and get rid of it again. I gorged on foods that were easy to bring up [again, we’re omitting details] so I could eat more of them and spend less time being sick. But I started to tire of the requirement to vomit. I couldn’t stop eating, so I had no choice, but I began to resent it, putting it off for so long that I’d tell myself it was pointless by then anyway – my body would have already absorbed the calories.

I’d love to say it was some brilliant self-love revelation that caused me to stop. But it wasn’t. I was just really, truly sick of staring into toilets, pushing my exhausted stomach to give up its contents, and trying to brush my extra-sensitive, damaged teeth. Having to do it on Christmas Day just seemed unfair. I wanted to be sitting in the lounge with my parents, having a good time and not thinking about whether my jeans would fit the next day.

So after all the presents were opened and the Queen had said her speech, I told my dad the truth about my red eye. He was horrified and sad. As I told him the milder details – not even the disgusting stuff I’ve mentioned here – the look of absolute horror on his face made me realise how bad things had got.

I can’t say I haven’t thrown up since, because I have. It’s only been a month, and it’s hard. Especially when I look at my size 14 figure, and know I got further towards my target by vomiting than dieting. But at what cost? I look seriously ill. I feel like I’ve aged by years. I wanted to look better, but I look awful and I feel worse. And worst of all, I’ve disappointed my parents. Seeing my mum cry out of concern for me was horrible.

I’m getting counselling, and learning to eat well without gorging. But the first and most important step on the journey was deleting the calorie tracking app. For some people, having complete knowledge of their food intake is exactly what they need to get healthy. But for me, it was the thing that made me ill.

Sincere thanks to Sarah for telling us her story. If you’re concerned about bulimia, anorexia or any other kind of disordered eating, please speak to your GP or contact Beat – it’s not worth risking your health. 

Holly Brockwell