Battling Food & Weight: Telling My Story for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week


It's National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. This year's theme?

Let's Get Real. So here's my story. 

On a trip to Hawaii, 16 years ago, I had the word 'Afatasi' tattooed on my back. It means halfe-caste in Samoan because I'm half Samoan. It's the most “tropical” thing I did. I was too busy obsessing over food and carbs to enjoy paradise; 10 macadamia nuts = 4 carbs.

Once, we were warriors

The Samoan islands are in the South Pacific. American Samoa is a U.S. territory. Not too long ago, Samoans lived off the land and sea, spearheading fish, tending to village-sized gardens, and canoeing between islands. We were fit, lean, and strong. Some of us still are. Samoans are known for their athleticism. We have one of the world's most mesomorphic (muscular) body types. Muscle bulk, especially in the lower body, makes us successful at football and rugby. It's been said a Samoan male is 56 times more likely to play in the NFL than a non-Samoan male.

Now, we're obese with health problems

Samoans also store more fat than non-Samoans. Ancestral evolution in cold climates led Polynesians to develop large bodies and retain weight. That extra weight isn't needed today, but our 'fat predisposition' remains. Drop one McDonalds and one KFC on American Samoa, increased sedentary time, and - BAM - Samoans have one of the highest obesity rates in the world.

The timeline

The obesity problem in Samoa starts at birth. Babies gain weight 20 percent faster than babies in the U.S. mainland. By 15 months, nearly 4 in 10 toddlers are overweight or obese. This continues into adulthood. Six in 10 Samoan adults are obese. Obesity underlies 1 in 3 having type 2 diabetesSamoan women are also at high risk of polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS.

Becoming a statistic 

At 20 years old, I was diagnosed with PCOS. My Polynesian dancer physique gained 30 lbs. My long hair fell out. I grew facial hair, and couldn't find an effective deodorant to save my life. I battled excessive sweating, acne, fatigue, and moodiness. My three prescriptions didn't kick in fast enough, so I turned to Yahoo search. Forums said eat less carbs, exercise, lower your stress, and lose weight. Driven by fear, I went balls out. I took my meds. Cut out carbs. Exercised daily. In two months, I lost 20 lbs. Symptoms continued, so I lost 10 more.

Weight loss: a blessing and a curse

I got down to a “normal weight.” My blood work was normal too. My PCOS symptoms disappeared. But, I lost 10 more lbs. Then, 10 more lbs. And even then, 10 more. In 6 months, my 5'8” frame went from 160 to 105 lbs, and a size 10 to a size 0. I obsessed over food. Feared it. Counted every carb, restricted food portions, and weighed in every day. I exerted control over my body to cope with the unknown physical and psychological harm it would bring me.

A second diagnosis: Anorexia

One year into my Ph.D. program, a psychiatrist recommended inpatient eating disorder treatment. I'd have to quit school. Not an option. I bootstrapped a band-aid solution that didn't work. I tried more band-aids. They didn't work either. My obsession with food and weight continued. At 26 years old, I was a post-doc by day, degree-seeking student by night, and a part-time employee with an active social life. My eating disorder made sure I could barely function. I wasn't living. I was barely surviving. It came to a head when low blood sugar landed me in the ER. The ER doctor, who was a trusted friend and colleague, handed me orange juice, but I was too afraid to drink it. I hit rock bottom. I needed help.

eatingdisorder-diabetesTurn the focus away from food and onto life

I found The Awakening Center, and spent two years in outpatient treatment. Tons of therapy - art, individual, group, family - taught me how to quiet the eating disorder and listen to life again. Time, patience and a lot of hard work shifted my attention to people, relationships, and work, quieting my preoccupation with food and restricting what I ate. I achieved a healthy weight and stopped taking medication for PCOS. Aside from two pregnancies, I've weighed the same for 10 years.

Today, I fight with you

It's been 17 years since my PCOS diagnosis and 16 years with the word 'Afatasi' tattooed on my back. Both my tattoo and health issues have faded. I sometimes forget I have a tattoo or that I've been to hell and back with my health. Then, I catch a glimpse of my tattoo in the mirror. Or, write this blog post, and realize I've worn the same size clothes for 10 years and haven't taken Metformin in 6 years.

Instantly, I'm proud of my Samoan heritage, and my health. I am reminded of the privilege it is to help others with PCOS, pre-diabetes, and diabetes. Many of us have co-occuring issues with food, our weight, or diagnosed eating disorders. I've come out the other end. With One Drop, I want to help you get there. We're in this, together.

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Chandra Y. Osborn, PhD, MPH
Mar 02, 2018

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