You could say it began with a big bowl of chocolate pudding. After days on a starvation diet, 14-year-old Maryjeanne broke down and devoured the whole bowl, spooning the forbidden chocolate sweetness into her mouth straight from the fridge.
Then the regret hit, and the shame. She had failed her 600-calorie-a-day diet. What to do now? She’d had Type 1 diabetes since age 10, and knew she should take some extra insulin to counterbalance all the pudding she’d just eaten. Or she could make a darker choice. She writes in her recent memoir, Eating to Lose:
I skipped my insulin that night. It was my penance.
The next day I lay in my hospital bed with five intravenous tubes connecting the insides of my arms, ankles, and neck to the stark walls of that room. There was not a single ounce of energy left in me. My mouth was drier than Arizona sand. My stomach felt as though it had expelled every morsel of food I had ever eaten. The muscles along my torso felt bruised from endless violent heaving; my insides now entirely evacuated. The combination of this torturous diet and the resulting chocolate pudding binge had cost me two collapsed lungs and nearly ten pounds of weight loss, consisting not of fat, mind you, but primarily of essential bodily fluids.
Maryjeanne had entered the world of “diabulimia,” an eating disorder specific to people with Type 1 diabetes, usually young women. The “bulimia” in the name refers to a diabetic method for purging calories: Instead of vomiting up food as typical bulimics do, someone with diabulimia skips or skimps on insulin, so that blood sugar is “purged” in urine instead of being absorbed and used for energy by the body’s tissues.
The effect can be instant weight loss. Also instant medical crisis, and devastating long-term damage.
Diabulimia offers perhaps the starkest example there is of the harsh “logic” of an eating disorder, an urge to lose weight so overwhelming that health no longer seems to matter. And young women with Type 1 diabetes are two to three times more prone to eating disorders than those without, research finds. The overall prevalence of diabulimia is estimated at up to 1.4 million Americans.
If a young woman is already at risk for an eating disorder, and then she experiences weight loss in a day or two from skipping insulin, “It’s outrageously reinforcing,” said Dr. Ann Goebel-Fabbri of the Joslin Diabetes Center. “That’s a more powerful and dangerous calorie purge than any other eating disorder symptom.”
The price is also exceptionally high. Continue reading