Rachel Michaelson started “eating on her feelings” as she struggled through puberty and adolescence.
Soaring to 22 stone after a lifetime of gorging, a woman who was dubbed “Fat Cow” at school, where a boy was “dared” to date her, has shed 10 stone thanks to “mindful eating” – and wants binge eating to be classed as an addiction.
Battling a series of medical conditions affecting her immune system, metabolism, bones and joints, when her teens hit, mum-of-two Rachel Michaelson, 41, started “eating on her feelings,” as she struggled through puberty and adolescence.
Hiding snacks in a shoe box in her bedroom cupboard, she would gorge on chocolate, crisps and biscuits when she felt down, triggering decades of see-sawing between binge eating and dieting, during which her weight shot up.
Finally, in 2014, sick of feeling like a “fatty,” Rachel, of Billingham, Stockton-on-Tees, Co. Durham, was introduced to “mindful eating” by a friend and shed two stone before having a gastric bypass, saying: “To those that think having surgery to lose weight is the easy option – it’s not.
“It’s a lifestyle overhaul. If I hadn’t changed my attitude towards food first then it wouldn’t have worked.
“Some of my friends thought surgery was the easy way out and they started doing stuff like liquidising chocolate eclairs, so they could still eat them, which is just ridiculous – and will stop them from losing the weight.”
She added: “But, for me, once I embraced mindful eating, which examines cravings and triggers for binge eating, it was like someone flicked a switch and my relationship with food changed completely.”
Rachel, who has two children, Ashlin, 20, and Taryn, 16, with her husband, Joshua Michaelson, 50, who is not working, has come so far since discovering mindful eating and having gastric surgery, that in July 2019 she launched her own practice, Brighter Horizons North East, where she works as a mind-set and mental health management coach.
It is a massive breakthrough for the former shop assistant, who now weighs 12 stone and has shrunk from a size 24 to a size 14, after struggling with her weight since childhood.
She said: “I was bullied at school because of my size, I’d get called ‘Fat Cow’ and it really affected my self-esteem.
“On one occasion, I found out a boy I thought fancied me had actually been dared to go out with me. When I found out the truth I was mortified.
“All my friends eventually got boyfriends and I was always that girl who was left behind at prom.”
Rachel continued: “It was a vicious cycle, as every time I felt down, I’d just secret eat to feel better.
“I hid snacks in a shoe box in my cupboard and, if I was feeling low, I’d sit in my bedroom and eat junk – sweets, chocolate biscuits – you name it, I ate it.”
Rachel’s weight problem and self-esteem issues were exacerbated by a series of troublesome health conditions.
She has myalgic encephalomyelitis, a condition that causes dysregulation of the immune, nervous, and energy metabolism systems – which is aggravated by exertion.
And she has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome hypermobility, a connective tissue disorder that mostly affects the bones and joints, making them looser and frequently causing long-term joint pain.
Also suffering with chronic fatigue syndrome, causing extreme tiredness, as an adult, Rachel tried to diet, but her efforts usually failed.
She said: “I spent most of my adult life yo-yo dieting – the soup diet, cabbage diet, cereal diet, I tried them all.
“I’d lose loads of weight, but as soon as I stopped the diet, I’d put it all back on and more.
“I have Joint Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and myalgic encephalomyelitis as well as chronic fatigue, so it’s much harder for me to lose weight than it is for the average person.”
She added: “If I went to the gym for 10 minutes, I’d be bed bound for a month because I’d be in so much pain.
“I tried everything to lose weight but because of my conditions and unhealthy food habits I felt like being slim was beyond my reach.”
But in 2014, “desperate” to lose weight, Rachel started looking into having gastric surgery.
She added: “I was worried about the health problems that come with being obese,” she said. “I didn’t want to get cancer or diabetes or have a heart attack because I was so overweight.”
At 5ft 7 and weighing 22 stone and with a body mass index (BMI) – a measure of healthy weight – of 40, compared to the NHS recommended range of 18.5 to 24.9, she qualified for surgery.
Told she needed to lose two stone to show her commitment, before she could have the operation on the NHS, she enlisted on a weight loss management programme.
Then, that June, after speaking to a friend about her unhealthy eating habits and her desire to have surgery, Rachel was introduced to mindful eating.
“My friend taught me techniques like genuinely asking myself, ‘Do I need to eat that?’” she said. “Honestly, after a couple of weeks, it transformed my life.”
“I started looking at food, like either a Mars bar or an apple, and asking myself, ‘Which one is better for me to eat?’ Of course, I’d pick the apple.”
“I did simple food swaps – swapping sugary cereal for cereal with no added sugar – and I became more conscious about my portion sizes.
“After a few months my mindset changed entirely, and food was no longer an emotional crutch for me.
“If I was ever low or sad, instead of eating, I’d go for a walk or I’d knit – I found other activities to distract myself.”
And in October 2016, having shed the required two stone, Rachel had a four-and-a-half-hour gastric bypass operation at Stockton’s University Hospital of North Tees, during which the size of the upper stomach is made into a small pouch, to reduce the amount of food that can be eaten.
She said: “I knew, with my new mindset, after I had the operation, I’d be able to lose the weight – and for good this time.”
Before her operation, Rachel would have scrambled egg on toast for breakfast, then soup, like cream of tomato or chicken for lunch, and spaghetti Bolognese or a Chinese takeaway or pizza for dinner – usually washed down with a full-fat coke.
She claims her big problem was binging on snacks, saying: “Snacking has always been my issue, or addiction. I ate crisps and chocolate like they were going out of fashion.
“On a bad day, I could get through a four-pack of crisps and a four-pack of chocolate.”
Now Rachel has conquered her own demons regarding food, she is keen for the medical profession to recognise binge eating as an addiction and is determined to use her own experience to help others.
Talking about life after gastric surgery, she said: “I suffer with Malabsorption, which is an abnormality in absorption of food nutrients, so I need vitamin B jabs every 12 weeks.
“I can’t eat a three-course meal anymore. I can barely finish off a child’s portion.
“I also have to eat my food in a certain order – having proteins, then vegetables and then carbs – and that’s if I even make it to carbs.”
Meanwhile, Rachel keeps a photograph of her “fat-self ” on her work desk to make sure she “never looks back.”
“If I’m having a down day, I just look at the picture and think ‘Is that really me?'” she said.
“It’s a reminder of who I used to be and who I am now. The fat me was so withdrawn, but now I walk taller and I’m confident.”
Rachel added: “Before I’d avoid having my picture taken like the plague, but now I know it sounds vain, but I love catching a glimpse of myself in a shop window.”
Losing weight and conquering her obsessional behaviour around food has also given Rachel the confidence to launch a career as a mindfulness and mental health management coach.
“I’ve been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt – so I know more than most about what needs to be done to change a mindset.
She said: “I know the process and the mental hurdles that need to be overcome. Now I help private clients and I also give talks in schools to help students.
“I use specialist techniques to tackle problems like dealing with anxiety and stressful situations. It’s all about how having a different mindset can change your life if you channel it in the right way.”
And Rachel insists that binge eating should be recognised as an addiction.
She said: “My excessive eating habits were actually an addiction.
“Binge eating needs to be classified as an addiction, in the same way drinking too much alcohol is, so people should get help.
“I was addicted to the spike of the feelgood chemical serotonin that comes with eating lots of sugary foods. I’d be on a high, but then I’d suddenly crash. I’d ache and all I’d want to do is sleep.”
“I’m so much more happier in myself now. This journey has given me my career and self-assurance as well as a slimmer figure.
“My husband would love me fat or thin – but he and my family are just so proud of the changes I’ve made.
“And that’s what I think about every time I look at that picture of my old self – just how far I’ve come.”
To find out more visit: https://ebony-raem.wixsite.com/brighterhorizons
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