Confessions of a binge eater: She travelled the world with premiers and presidents, but Katherine Baldwin hid a shaming secret…
Long battle: Katherine is finally coming to terms with her eating problems
We'd arrived in Shanghai. Or was it Seoul I was a journalist accompanying then Prime Minister Tony Blair on a tour of the Far East and one five-star hotel was starting to look much like another.
The evening routine was just as predictable: dinner with the Press pack, drinks in the bar . . . then up to my room to gorge myself on jars of cashew nuts and slabs of chocolate from the mini-bar until my stomach hurt and all I could do was crawl into bed in tears.
Then came the shame — the shame of my expanding body and of the empty food wrappers in the bin. In public, I was a confident, 30-something political reporter for a global news agency who ate healthily and wore a size 10. In private, I was a compulsive overeater who binged on sweets and carbohydrates to cope with stress and low self-esteem.
I’d been a straight ‘A’ student and an Oxford University graduate. I’d travelled the world and lived abroad. My journalism career had taken me inside Downing Street and the White House, to Iraq and Afghanistan. I’d flown with Blair and met George W. Bush. But through school, university and much of my career, I hadn’t felt good enough. In my eyes, I wasn’t clever enough, successful enough, thin enough or pretty enough. In short,
I wasn’t perfect, and that was unbearable to me. I had discovered, however, that the sedative effect of excess food made life tolerable and helped soothe my fear and anxiety so I could perform in my high-stress job. And it didn’t get much more stressful than on those prime ministerial trips. We’d fly to America, then Japan, China and South Korea. I’d work around the clock, filing stories to different time zones — sleep wasn’t really an option.
The work was exciting but something had to give. Some of my colleagues would drink. Others would smoke. I would eat. Food got me through other high-profile assignments. I reported on the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami from Sri Lanka and overate on dry crackers and peanuts to relieve my anxiety and tension. The irony of returning from a disaster zone having put on a few pounds might have been funny if I hadn’t felt so mortified.
Whenever I gained weight after a trip away I would always work extra hard to shift it when I returned. Covering the Madrid bombings that same year, I polished off the contents of the hotel mini-bar in the early hours of the morning. This wasn’t comfort eating. Comfort eaters may scoff a packet of biscuits or a tub of ice cream and feel a bit guilty.
Katherine aged 37 on a military plane during a Prime Ministerial trip to the Middle East with Gordon Brown, when she was working as a reporter
Comfort eaters, though, don’t keep
shovelling food into their mouths mindlessly until they’re about to
burst. Comfort eaters can stop — binge eaters can’t. Like alcohol for
the alcoholic, food is like a drug to a binge eater.
But I’m far from alone in having used food as a crutch. Up to 12
million people in the UK may suffer from compulsive overeating to some
extent, says the National Centre for Eating Disorders.
own battle with food and weight began at a young age. As with most
eating disorder sufferers, the reasons for my illness were multiple and
complex but I now realise it had a lot to do with looking for love and
avoiding emotional pain.
some point — perhaps when I was eight and my parents divorced, perhaps
before — I decided I wasn’t good enough or loved enough. My eating and
body obsession were also about control. I restricted my food intake in
my early teenage years in order to be thin. There were so many things I
couldn’t control, but I thought I could manage my weight. How wrong I
Pretty soon, the switch flipped and my
under-eating turned to overeating. Food had become my comforter and
friend. It numbed my sadness and gave me the love and security I felt
was missing. That initial
weight-gain marked the start of a battle that continued into my 30s. I
would binge, diet, starve, then binge again. I’d go running for hours to
lose the weight, only to overeat again. Bulimics purge their food
through vomiting or laxatives — I used compulsive exercise.
Globetrotter: Katherine aged 27 on holiday in Cuba in 1998 (left) and at the border of Brazil and Argentina four years later
At my maximum, I was close to 12st, but I would get down to 10st when my weight-loss regimes were working. Yet no matter my size, I hated the way I looked and wore baggy clothes. As for relationships, sometimes I kept men away with my layer of fat or I’d make poor choices because of low self-esteem.
The relationships I did have all ended — I couldn’t love or accept myself, so how could I love or accept anyone else Of course, it wasn’t all bad — I led an exciting life, but the food obsession was always there. It was only when I was in my early 30s and reached what I had always told myself was an acceptable weight of around 9st — through dieting, diet pills, exercise and perhaps some happier times — that I realised I had an abnormal relationship with food.
For all those years, I’d convinced myself thinness would bring automatic happiness, but still I wasn’t satisfied. I realised that my problem wasn’t actually with food — it was with feelings. Tricia Heyland, a psychotherapist who specialises in eating disorders, explains: ‘Without realising it, very often a compulsive overeater is feeling out of control of their negative emotions — such as pain, anxiety, fear, anger — and they’ll misinterpret these feelings as hunger.
It is thought that 40 per cent of those suffering from binge eating disorders are men
‘The way to recovery is by learning how to identify these frozen feelings and work through them.’
So my own recovery began in 2003. I started to talk about my eating with friends. I found a therapist and got help from support groups and by speaking to other eating disorder sufferers. I slowly began to make peace with food and my body.
I learned to avoid foods that left me craving more and situations that triggered binges. When tempted to overeat, I’d ask myself what I really needed. Was I actually hungry or was I tired, sad, angry or lonely But it was trial and error — and the errors generally coincided with times of extreme stress or sleep deprivation.
Things got easier after a couple of years as I realised I was eating to fill an emotional and spiritual hole that dated back decades. I also rediscovered my childhood faith and learned to pray and meditate. I gave up trying to control my weight. I learned to sit still rather than be in perpetual motion, to exercise for pleasure not punishment and to understand concepts such as trust and acceptance.
In 2008, I bowed out of my job as a political reporter and became self-employed. Now, at 40, I’m learning to live without excess food and to build my self-esteem from the inside, not the outside. I’m learning to trust that I am good enough and to walk through my fears without a crutch.
I’m single and have never married — my food addiction and the low self-worth, control and perfectionism that lay underneath always got in the way — but I finally accept myself as I am. It’s been a long and winding road and I’m still walking it but, after years of bingeing and starving, it’s a real joy to wake up every morning and know I have the chance and the choice to be free.
For help with eating disorders, contact: Beat: b-eat.co.uk or Overeaters Anonymous: oagb.org.uk.