A social media furore was unleashed this week when a Biggest Loser contestant won the US version of the show after losing a massive 60 per cent of her body weight. Rachel Frederickson was heavily criticised and accused of losing too much weight and having an eating disorder. Wollongong’s Zoe Jenkins knows the work it takes to lose a significant amount of weight and says it is inner demons that can cause overeating and sabotage a healthier lifestyle.
In a country where people struggling with obesity are pitted against each other for viewing pleasure, one could be forgiven for thinking shedding pounds was a piece of cake.
Personal trainers on prime time reality TV shows scream at reluctant heavyweight Australians, warning they are eating themselves to an early grave.
Then in a matter of weeks the trainers are hugging and praising those same contestants - who have become shadows of their former selves.
Shows like The Biggest Loser appear to shrink adults, children and even entire towns before our very eyes.
'I was shown at a young age that food was a good source of comfort, so to deal with everything I just ate'
But anyone who has struggled with weight - and that's at least three out of every five Australians - will tell you there are deep-seeded demons at play.
No two demons are the same but all have an incredible resistance to common sense.
Zoe Jenkins says her destructive overeating is an addiction she will battle for the rest of her life.
At her heaviest she "ballooned" to what she calls "a massive" 160 kilograms.
"I was in my mid-20s, living in Tasmania and I had been diagnosed with depression, something I am pretty sure I have had since I was a kid," Zoe says.
"I was so embarrassed about having depression that I hid from many people. I also instructed my psychologist that I didn't want to deal with my past; I just wanted to try to move forward. Naturally that didn't work.
"One day I was watching a report on TV about this 14-year-old girl battling her own weight problems; she had taken the drastic step of getting lap-band surgery.
"I thought to myself, if a 14-year-old has the courage to take control of her weight problem then so should I."
The next day Zoe booked in to get a referral to see a surgeon about the procedure.
Two months later she underwent lap-band surgery.
Zoe says the procedure saved her life, "no doubt about it", but it didn't give her the answers she craved.
"At first I lost weight, about 20 kilograms. But then I fell straight back into my old and extremely bad habits," she says.
"A lap-band doesn't stop you from eating bad food; it stops you from eating big portions. So I was still able to consume ice-cream and chocolate and all the other foods I loved that had huge calories.
"So why did the lap-band save me? Well it did stop me from gaining weight. For years I maintained a consistent weight, I sometimes would gain a tiny bit but then I'd lose it. So I pretty much kept to the same level on the scales.
"But in all honesty, I was never going to be ready to tackle my weight problem properly until I had dealt with my past pains."
That moment came when Zoe was 29. Her depression had turned severe.
She was suicidal, a "time bomb waiting to explode".
It had taken years and years for her demons to take control.
"My weight battle began when I was a little chubby kid, so pretty much right back at the beginning," she says.
"My mum was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was a toddler. I remember feeling really lost and not sure what the hell was going on.
"It was a scary time for a little girl to watch her mum deteriorate. My mum had a goal to make it to my fifth birthday. I am blessed to say she achieved this goal.
"Eleven days later she passed away.
"I think it's something that I will always be scarred over. And to say I don't have tears rolling down my cheeks now would be a lie."
Zoe says she faced other traumatic situations around the same age, when she was too young to have the emotional strength or coping mechanisms she needed.
She was a scared little girl.
"Even as a child I would hide my problems and try to deal with them myself.
"Always one to wear a happy mask, no-one really had a clue the emotional turmoil I was in.
"I think I was shown at a young age that food was a good source of comfort, so to deal with everything I just ate, and ate and ate some more."
People around her didn't seem to link Zoe's increasing weight to her emotions.
Everyone just thought she liked food a bit too much.
"I'm not going to lie, at that stage I did. It had become an addiction and I was well and truly hooked," she says.
"My weight was never going to budge until I dealt with my past pains which caused this massive addiction, but to do that meant I would have to confess all and drag up things I thought should remain buried.
"That was something I did not want to do, for my own sake but mainly for the sake of others.
"So I just kept on dealing with my problems the only way I knew how, by eating."
Zoe created a barrier, "a wall of fat" between her and the world as she travelled through school.
By the end of high school she weighed over 100 kilograms and was wearing plus size clothes.
"This was something that horrified me, yet that didn't stop me from eating. It didn't snap me out of the slow suicide spiral I was on, because as sad as it was, I knew that I was causing myself huge health problems, I just didn't care.
"A part of me didn't want to exist, so if I died young then so be it."
One day when life was spiralling out of control, Zoe turned to her sister.
"I confessed all to her; it was a life-changing moment, a night I will never forget. She gave me the support, comfort and reassurance I so desperately needed," she says.
"She helped me put plans into place for me to deal with the past so I could move forward. She metaphorically held my hand through those first few months of telling my dad and mum [ex stepmum] about the real life and times of Zoe.
"It was hard and heartbreaking to do. But I was blessed that I had their support.
"When they didn't know how to deal with an aspect of my depression, they sought advice and learnt what to do to deal with it. Just having their support was such a comfort."
Zoe found a personal trainer who knew she had "immense fears and hang-ups" about exercise.
She was victimised and bullied because of her weight during high school PE so they took it slow.
"We met at secluded locations and she quashed all fears I had about personal trainers being bullies, as they are so often represented on TV."
It was hard for Zoe to say goodbye when she decided to move back to Wollongong, her home town.
She found an "amazing" psychologist and started intense therapy while her family gave her the space she needed - but were always on standby.
After six months of therapy Zoe was ready to start working on the outside.
She resumed her fitness training with two "dedicated and inspiring" trainers, and over a year saw some results "but not exactly major ones".
"It was a slow process because honestly I was slowing it down, self sabotage," she says.
"Years of emotional blah all had to be dealt with along with the process of losing weight.
"Not only did I have to work out and train hard but I had to learn to eat right. What foods I should avoid, what foods I can eat, how much I can eat, when to eat.
"Telling myself and the girls [her two trainers] that I had eaten the right things when I full well knew that I hadn't … [they are] old habits, bad habits, habits that are extremely hard to break."
It's something she still battles today.
"I think like any addiction it's something I am going to battle with for the rest of my life."
When Zoe's trainers thought she was emotionally stronger they got a little tougher with her.
"I didn't run or hide - actually I did sulk for about a day but then I stepped up.
"They set down goals and challenges and I was up for them, I didn't always succeed but I came damn close, and that was invigorating.
"In the space of four months I lost over 15 kilograms, which previously took me over a year to do.
"All up in the past 18 months I've lost over 30 kilograms, which in total is over 56 kilograms since at my heaviest in 2008.
"I am so close to being double figures again, something I haven't been since I was a teenager.
"It's an exciting period in my life and I can't wait to see only two numbers flash up on the scales before the decimal point instead of three."
Zoe still has her slip-ups, but "that's life" and recent complications with her lap band have caused her problems.
"I had to get an adjustment to remove all the restriction."
After six years of feeling constantly full and only being able to eat small quantities she was back able to consume what a "normal" person can eat.
"At first it was like there was a party in my belly and all food groups were invited. I slipped straight back into bad habits and ate a lot purely because I could.
"Six years of being restricted my brain instantly told me to go nuts. After a few days I calmed down but then went through this phase where I realised I wasn't feeling full.
"And even though I wasn't hungry my brain was telling me that I should eat more because I wasn't full. So I would. I soon realised how crazy this was and confessed to my trainers."
Fessing up helped her get back on track and put strategies in place to deal with the changes.
"It's going to take time to get used to it, but consistency, dedication and determination will help me through this," she says, after what has been an intense 18 months.
"I've learnt some amazing new things about exercise, food and fitness," Zoe says.
"I've learnt that there are some awesome people in this world that will bend over backwards to help you, as long as you give it your all.
"I've also learnt that for me, accountability is the key to my success."
Zoe shares her journey on Facebook, making herself accountable to everyone following her journey.
"It's been 18 months of sharing with them my highs and lows, and to this day I am still blown away by the support and encouragement they all give me," she says.
"What floors me the most is that I have helped inspire and motivate some of them to start their own journey. I never thought I would inspire one person, let alone a group of people. That is awesome and so humbling."
Most people who come across Zoe want to know how much more weight she wants to lose.
"The truth is I don't know. I've never been a 'normal weight' or size so I don't know what the scales should read for me," she says.
"What I do know is I'm not doing this to look fit I'm doing this to be fit."
Link to mental health found
Australian researchers discovered a direct link between obesity and mental illness in 2011.
A team at the University of Tasmania found overweight girls who don’t shed the extra kilos as they grow up double their risk of suffering depression as adults.
Using data collected from 1135 girls in 1985, and again 20 years later, they found ‘‘persistent obesity’’ was linked to the mood disorder.
‘‘Overweight or obese girls who were able to attain a healthy weight when they were an adult; they didn’t have an increased risk of depression,’’ said lead researcher Kristy Sanderson.
Two years earlier, researchers in Adelaide warned doctors should pay more attention to the link between common mental illness and obesity in patients because the two health problems are closely linked.
In an editorial published recently in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), the University of Adelaide researchers said a ‘‘better understanding of the mechanisms for the apparent bi-directional risk between obesity and common mental disorders is needed for effective treatment and prevention’’.
‘‘Although the topic is largely unexplored, several psychosocial, lifestyle and physiological factors may be involved in the complex inter-relationship between obesity and mental illness,’’ Dr Evan Atlantis said.
‘‘Obese people – especially those who perceive themselves as overweight – often experience weight-related stigma and discrimination, and consequently present with symptoms of low self esteem, low self worth, and guilt.
‘‘Obesity may constitute a chronic stressful state, which in turn can cause significant physiological dysfunction.’’
People overeat as a way to avoid negative emotions or feelings, said the Associated Counsellors and Psychologists.
The food intake helps to distract from emotions, and people start to use food as a way of repressing unhappy, angry or upset feelings.
If you are concerned with eating issues and want to book a consultation with a qualified counsellor, psychologist or therapist contact the Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney.
For their Illawarra service call 4210 6170.