From Thin to Fit - An Anorexic's Story

By CrossFit on 05.15.11
Emma Moburg-Jones replaces a negative addiction with a positive one.

Three years ago, Aaron Moburg-Jones dragged the skeletal frame of his anorexic sister to CrossFit—and helped turn her life around.  

Emma Moburg-Jones struggled with anorexia for three years. She restricted her food intake to below what was necessary to fuel her body, and then burned every calorie on her eight-mile morning runs. Standing at 5’7”, Emma weighed just 105 pounds —up from 93. 

At this point, Emma knew she had an eating disorder and decided that she wanted out. But she was struggling to break free of the anorexic thinking. “I was in the middle of transitioning, or at least trying to go through the motions on my way to becoming a normal person with normal eating habits, but my thinking was exactly the same,” Emma says. 

Emma still wanted to be thin and she feared muscle, so she continued to cater her exercise and diet toward thinness rather than health. She eschewed Aaron’s recommendations to incorporate CrossFit into her running, and focused solely on burning calories. 

Discovering CrossFit, and Muscles

It wasn’t until she attended a free CrossFit workout in the park that things began to change. That day, Emma got her “ass kicked by everyone.” It jolted her. She had worked so hard for her body — she was a runner and therefore an athlete in her mind — so she was shocked to realize she wasn’t fit. 

“I am a competitive person,” Emma explains. Being tested publicly and falling behind was exactly what she needed start the change in earnest. “I wanted to win … and getting my ass kicked motivated me more than anything.

“Slowly, over the next year, as I watched these badass CrossFit women train, my mindset started to change. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be stronger. I wanted to be bigger. And I realized that muscles were actually sexy, not manly.” 

Focusing her competitive drive on CrossFit has helped Emma break free from her eating disorder. To keep from getting her ass kicked at every workout, Emma has started thinking, eating, and exercising differently. When she ate well, she did better. If she returned to poor eating, she’d fall behind. CrossFit challenged her to change, gave her a new focus, and offered her a tangible way to track how she was doing on the road to health and fitness.

Now, just three years later, Emma Moburg-Jones owns CrossFit So ILL and will compete in the 2011 North Central Regional. Anorexia is a serious medical condition with a low recovery rate. Emma’s return to health is remarkable, but particularly since she has found that the addition of CrossFit has not only helped her get out of the disordered thinking about food, but has also helped her stay on track and avoid relapse. Emma has come far, however, the road to recovery wasn’t easy or without setbacks. This is a glimpse of her journey.

Slipping Back Into Obsessive Eating

Soon after joining CrossFit, Emma‘s trainers recommended she try the Zone Diet. Although the diet has worked for many CrossFitters, Emma found that weighing and measuring, and “cheat days” brought her back into her disordered eating behaviors and thinking. 

“It was the Zone that started to get me in trouble,” Emma says. “I was in transition at the time — no longer starving myself, but trying to eat at least a bit throughout the day without obsessing about exactly how much I was eating, but the Zone told me that it was time to go back to doing that.” 

The Zone diet didn’t help Emma because it refocused her attention on quantities of food. Many people who have suffered from anorexia have obsessed about calories and quantities, and may find it hard to weigh and measure without returning to obsessive thinking, or over-control.  

“I tried it for a bit, counting every almond, weighing my deli meat to the exact right amount of blocks,” Emma explains, “but I started to feel some old thinking creeping back in.” Once again, she started to feel herself, “Needing to control and account for every calorie, and trying to delay gratification by eating all of by blocks at one time in the evening (i.e. binging).” The Zone triggered Emma’s eating disorder, but fortunately she changed course and tried another approach to eating.

Next, Emma tried intermittent fasting, but without any luck. Emma found that intermittent fasting allowed her to return to a “full blown eating disorder” behavior that she could disguise as a health-based regimen. After her struggles with intermittent fasting, Emma strongly suggests that no trainer recommend this diet to an athlete with a history of eating disorders.

Finding a Balance with Nutrition

Finally, she found success with Paleo. Emma says the Paleo diet helped shift her focus from controlling quantity to quality. 

Freed from counting calories or measuring blocks, Emma now simply thinks of eating clean and getting her body fuel. This allows her to bypass anything that may trigger obsessive thinking and over-control. Now, Emma keeps the quantity of food that she eats checked and balanced by her performance on the workouts. Additionally, by following Paleo most, but not all, of the time she allows in enough “cheats” that she no longer feels the urge to binge.

Dealing with Addictions

Greg Glassman believes that, “You can’t get over addictions, but you can get new ones.” For many, CrossFit is that new addiction.

We’ve seen it before. Dan Tyminski, who is ranked 6th worldwide at the end of the Open, struggled with an addiction to heroine just two years ago. Now, he endorses the motto, “Fuck Drugs, Do CrossFit.”

Emma sees CrossFit as her first healthy addiction. “I have an addictive personality,” she says, “I need something to obsess about. When I was a teenager, it was illegal drugs, then it was food, and now it’s CrossFit.”

When asked if she believes her “addiction” to CrossFit can weather life’s challenges, Emma responds confidently that she believes it can. She says CrossFit has done more than simply distract her from underlying issues, but has taught her how fix some of her problems and redirect her energy toward positive goals. 

“No matter what happens now, even if CrossFit became illegal, I would continue in the fitness industry or sports somehow,” Emma says. “Health and fitness has become such a huge part of my life, I know that I will never need anything else to replace it."

“Is it a flaw that I’m an addict? Absolutely. However, as long as I am addicted to something that does not hurt me or others, I’d say it’s a pretty good flaw to have.”

This is the first installment in a two-part series. In the next installment, Emma Moburg-Jones gives tips to trainers who would like to coach nutrition with their classes or athletes with a history of disordered eating.

Basem M

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Posted at 8:03 AM PST on January 13, 2012
Kim J

Emma, thanks for sharing such a powerful story. I had been bulimic for 10 years, healed myself, but continued to think about it often for another 10 years until I changed my diet. I understand about not really having a "true" trigger. The turning point for me was when I began to feed my body nutrient dense food that gave my brain the fuel it needed to make better decisions. Food really does effect the body, the mind, and the spirit! Continue creating health both inside and out.

Posted at 5:50 PM PDT on May 22, 2011

Amy, a couple of things.....I don't think that you read what I wrote very carefully, and I also think that you are taking other people's opinions as fact. Which they are not....there are many psychologists and psychiatrists out there who do believe in addictive personalities, though they may call them different things. I have been this way my ENTIRE life. Nothing happened in my childhood to make me that way. I have a need to focus on something and be the best at it. When I was a little kid it was games/sports, when I was a teenager it was school/success, then it was drugs, then it was food, and now its CrossFit. I am channeling my tendencies into something healthy. Furthermore, I SPECIFICALLY say that I now eat what makes me FEEL better.....what makes me stronger.....and paleo foods happen to do that for me, perhaps they don't for someone else. I am by no means rigidly sticking to eat (which, again, had you read it closely you would have read that), I try and eat that way 80% of the time, and found that mentally and physically I feel much better that way. I can now look at food as fuel....I do not eat a certain way to maintain a bodytype....but to break PR's. I think it's absurd to disagree with someone on something that makes them happier and healthier. Would it work for you? Perhaps not, and I don't care, that's not the point of the article. The point was to let people know what worked for me.

Posted at 1:00 PM PDT on May 18, 2011
Allison N

This is such an inspiring story! Thanks so much for sharing this-- it reminds me of where I was when I discovered Crossfit: not really knowing what fitness was and placing too much value on my appearance and being a waif (something my body wasn't meant to be EVER). I definitely relate to the sense of "food freedom" that Paleo offers. As a health/nutrition coach, I try to impart this on my clients. This is a story I will definitely share with them. Thank you so much!

Posted at 6:32 AM PDT on May 17, 2011

Emma- Congratulations, way to have determination and push through all of those obstacles. Best of wishes and good luck! Truly an inspirational story, will be looking forward to those tips in part ll.

Posted at 4:05 PM PDT on May 16, 2011
a c

Emma - I loved your story until I read the end...So many women struggle with disordered eating (eating that does not meet the full criteria) or eating disorders that can often function under the disguise of zone or paleo. I believe that eating zone or paleo can be extremely triggering to women with eating disorders, even if they are recovered, b/c of the guilt evoked by eating forbidden foods. I believe that such diets are a slippery slope to disordered eating, especially for women with histories of eating disorders. And the ironic thing is, women suffering from eating disorders (or disordered eating) are often the first to sign up for such a diet. It is best to teach women to embrace their figure while also getting strong through crossfit. I was bulimic for 7 years and have happily recovered. I know I will never prescribe by rigid diets, but rather, I listen to and trust my body and it's needs. The incredbile book Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnston describes how we as a society are taught to ignore our body, and if we just listen to the natural hunger and satiety cues of our body, we begin to learn that our bodies are incredible machines. Part of the experience of eating disorders is that women become very disconnected from their bodies; therefore, instead of prescribing to a regimented diet, it seems much more healing for women to begin to listen and trust internal cues.

Additionally, psychological research demonstrates that there is no such thing as an addictive personality. Rather, people develop addictive tendencies as a way to defend against feelings of loss, rejection, loneliness, abandonment, and the whole gament. In other words, addictions fill the void left by a psychological injury. Thus, instead of replacing crossfit with another addition, I'd also encourage people to reflect on what it was that caused their addiction in the first place.

I guess my long post comes from a very personal place in my heart. I love crossfit and am an avid crossfiter; however, as a psychotherapist, I am often disappointed by the lack of knowledge regarding eating disorders within the community, and how many boxes may be contributing/promoting disordered eating within women. When I have time, I hope to research disordered eating with crossfit and publish results to exemplify how something seemingly positive/healthy can have detrimental psychological effects.

Posted at 3:58 PM PDT on May 16, 2011

Love it. Please publicize the hell out of this story on facebook, blogs, newspapers, whatever.

Posted at 12:14 PM PDT on May 16, 2011

Thanks for sharing this inspiring story

Posted at 9:46 AM PDT on May 16, 2011

Thank you for sharing! Instead of calling it a "cheat", why not call it a "treat"? A "cheat" is something negative... I know you shouldn't have it, and often I feel guilty for slipping up. A "treat" is a little something everyone deserves from time to time.

Posted at 8:15 AM PDT on May 16, 2011

Great article!!!!

Posted at 7:04 AM PDT on May 16, 2011

This is an inspirational story and one that we can all learn from. Emma, Dan, Kim and all those who have struggled and overcome health hurdles, I am so proud of you.

Posted at 5:52 AM PDT on May 16, 2011

This is a great success story...I am honestly shocked though, that anyone ever suggested she try the zone. That is, if they knew Emma had an eating disorder. People who have even tendencies toward eating issues should likely steer clear of the rigor, as it give you a framework on which to base the disordered behavior. I know when I first tried it, I had some very strange thought patterns around food, which thankfully were corrected.

Great inspirational story, awesome to see how CF being measurable and observable can provide the measuring stick to prove to someone stuck in one of these disorders what's happening and snap them out of it. That's cool.

Posted at 4:52 AM PDT on May 16, 2011

I am SO glad you shared your story. I am 5'2" and nearly 18 years ago was 82 pounds. I remember if I was 83 pounds one day, I wouldnt eat anything that day, knowing the next day I would be 82 pounds or less again. I recall just looking at food and telling myself it was disgusting. The power of the mind is amazing as it wasn't long before I actually would look at food and become physically sick. Things changed when as a cheerleader, I was changing my top in the bathroom and I overheard some girls commenting on how they could see the ribs in my back. I didnt want that kind of attention, so I started slowly eating more, but my new "goal" was 90 pounds. Then ten years ago I gained 80 pounds with my first child and 70 with my second. My thoughts of weight, body image, and eating were still severly distorted. I truly love CrossFit for what it has done for me in regards to my views on body image, health, and fitness. Even having done CrossFit for almost 2 years, it has only just been in the last 6 months that I have finally "commited" to eating right. It has really been a struggle to commit to that, but I have been doing quite well. I did try Zone and completely agree with your comments on it. It can put you right back on the path to unhealthy eating with all of the measuring and control issues-if you have had a prior eating disorder. I, like everyone else, have struggled with things. This has been one of the most difficult to change as far as thought processes go. Once in a while, those old thoughts will creep back in, but then I remember the accomplishments that I have had in CrossFit and know that I dont want to lose those PR's and I try to remember how I feel when I am eating well and performing well. I changed the thought process to food being fuel and that has helped a bunch. I am now a trainer and I love what I do and wouldn't change it for anything. Keep up the awesome work! You are an inspiration :) ! All the best!

Posted at 8:36 PM PDT on May 15, 2011
svenne b

Now, that's a really cool story! Go get em Emma!

Posted at 7:02 PM PDT on May 15, 2011

Emma- so glad to hear Crossfit is working. I too was hospitalized, twice, for anorexia (5'8 down to 91lbs), put in a wheelchair for months. That was 10 yrs ago. Fitness became my new addiction and I "allowed" myself to eat if I worked out for like 3-4 hours a day. I was miserable. After finding Crossfit I have never looked back and have felt amazing. I couldn't believe I would get even leaner and more muscular by working out for less time. I got my life back!!! Journaling my progress and seeing results on paper was what I needed, because I was a doubter. And, AGREED, the Zone is not good for those with prior eating disorders. I do a mix of Paleo/clean eating - going for quality - not quantity! I really damaged my body for years by extreme fasting to eating extreme quantities and over training. I will be 40 next year and am proud to say I can compete with the 20 something's in our gym...made it to the Games last year on the team and hoping for a repeat performance this year...our gym RAW Training is currently third in the World!! RAW Training Crossfit saved me!

Posted at 5:55 PM PDT on May 15, 2011

Emma -- so proud of you, as a CrossFit affiliate and a friend. You rock. Go get 'em at Regionals!

Posted at 5:05 PM PDT on May 15, 2011

Thanks for posting this CrossFit - and way to find health Emma! I too struggled with eating disorders for several years and totally agree that the Zone can be a scary place for people with a history of unhealthy eating habits (I have also found Paleo to be a welcome relief). Props to bringing attention to this issue and THANK YOU CROSSFIT for changing the way people think about fitness, health, and strong women.

Posted at 4:58 PM PDT on May 15, 2011

Stay STRONG Emma!!

Posted at 2:45 PM PDT on May 15, 2011

Great article! I had been wondering about CrossFit as a "treatment" for eating disorders- it's great to hear about Emma's success!

Posted at 12:02 PM PDT on May 15, 2011

Wonderful story! Thanks for sharing this.

Posted at 11:52 AM PDT on May 15, 2011

Great story

Posted at 11:25 AM PDT on May 15, 2011