Tracey Gold on Beating Her Eating Disorder

By McCarton Ackerman 12/13/11
Tracey Gold was the kid sister on Growing Pains who became the first public face of anorexia. Now the 42-year-old mother of four is hoping to increase awareness of eating disorders with her new reality show.
Gold's Growing Pains Photo via

When an average 19-year-old gains weight, it doesn’t tend to inspire many conversations. When Tracey Gold gained weight at that age, however, Growing Pains producers began incorporating fat jokes at her expense into the script. It was all in a day’s work.

But Gold took it to heart. She’d actually had a bout with anorexia when she was 12 but at 19 clocked in at a hardly obese 133 pounds. A few years later, she’d whittled down to 90 pounds by following a medically supervised 500-calorie-a-day diet. Becoming one of the first celebrities to be publicly outed for anorexia—a tradition that would continue with Calista Flockhart, Victoria Beckham, among others—she was eventually so skeletal that she was forced off the show.

After a public proclamation that she had defeated her anorexia and a relapse shortly after, Gold eventually won her battle with her eating disorder in the mid-90s. And she’s now serving as a mentor to other women suffering with similar issues on a new, six-episode reality show on Lifetime, Starving Secrets—which chronicles the lives of several women struggling with eating disorders who receive treatment, as well as advice from Gold herself. 

How difficult was it to deal with some of the women on the show who have shown resistance to treatment and give the same excuses you once might have?

Even as I got to 90 pounds people would say I looked great or ask me how I lost all this weight. 

It was definitely frustrating, but I knew that was a possibility going in. I had prepared myself to know it wasn’t going to be all roses. At the same time, I consider the two women who were resistant in the first episode to be success stories. If they were pissed or angry but stuck it out, I considered it to be a success. It’s when they would leave treatment that I would get frustrated. 

Is there still a lack of information out there for people suffering from anorexia?

Absolutely. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of information out there and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do this show. People don’t have a clear understanding of what this condition is and what it entails. On one of the episodes, there’s a girl named Lisa in Ohio and she’s just stuck. She couldn’t get treatment because there are all these requirements when it comes to dealing with insurance. You’re jumping through hoops to get the care you need. If your insurance does cover treatment, they generally won’t go beyond the first 30 days and that’s not enough time to recover from this. 

When did you first begin to struggle with anorexia?

When I was 12 years old, I had a bout with it one summer. My body was changing and it was my way of trying to deal with adolescence and growing up. It was more of a “control summer” than anything, and I went through much of my teenage years not thinking about it. I didn’t really diet until I was 19. I had gained sort of the Freshman 15 while I was on Growing Pains and was trying to lose 20 pounds.

When you gained weight, they added fat jokes to the script at your expense. Looking back, do you feel like the jokes were made for the character or were they barbs at you?

You can’t critique Carol Seaver’s body without critiquing Tracey Gold’s body: they’re one in the same. That was the part that was hard to deal with. The producers would justify keeping the jokes in the script by saying it was funny or it was brother-sister banter, but at the same time, they were telling me to lose weight. It was a hard one to wrap my brain around. 

The most disturbing part of your story, to me, was that a doctor put you on a 500-calorie-per-day diet.

It was an endocrinologist. I never had a weight problem before and thought that maybe there was a thyroid issue or imbalance when in reality I just needed to cut out junk food. He had designed two diets: one was 1,500 calories and the other was 500. He said I could pick either one so naturally I picked the one with fewer calories. It just goes to show that you can go to a doctor and still not get the best information or advice.

When you got to the point where you were noticeably underweight but not 90 pounds yet, what was the response you got?

Tons of compliments. Even as I got to 90 pounds people would say I looked great or ask me how I lost all this weight. I knew how to dress myself and hide the problem. My boyfriend at the time, who’s now my husband, would get so angry about it. He would go up to people and say, “Stop telling her she looks great. She doesn’t. She’s sick.”

What was the moment when you knew you had to do something about this?

It was probably when I met my husband. The way my eating habits were, I couldn’t have a social life. I wouldn’t eat for days and finally just said to myself, “I have to change this.” So I tried to stop and found that I couldn’t. I took a year off—I had been acting since I was four and just needed to get away. I tried to get back to a normal eating routine and still couldn’t.

When you started to return to acting, did you ever find it difficult to get work because your anorexia was so heavily publicized in the media? 

Not at all. Somebody approached me right away and offered me a movie of the week. I was still sick and underweight, but on the road to recovery and that was of the beginning of my movie of the week career.

How did you handle eating on set? 

I was very specific in my recovery in terms of having safe foods and foods I wouldn’t eat. As soon as I got on location, the first thing I would do was make sure to know where I could get my meal. I’d also talk to the craft services people and make sure they would have certain foods available. I was very active in making sure I was in a position to continue moving forward. 

You also had a DUI in 2004. What’s your relationship with alcohol now and if it’s total abstinence, where do you consider yourself in terms of recovery?

Just to clarify, the DUI was an isolated incident and absolutely not indicative of an addiction. It was just a horrible night and that’s it. 

What advice or tips do you have for those who are currently struggling with anorexia? 

Take baby steps and take it at your own pace. Have trust in others. Try and find something worth more to you than the anorexia. Ask yourself what your eating disorder will get in the way of, because it will get in the way. For me, it was my family and my husband and my career. All those things that I loved. 

Now that this season of the show has wrapped, what’s next for you? 

I’d love for this to become an ongoing series. That was the idea. The first season was such a work in progress that I’d like to be able to have a second season so we could fine-tune it and get more awareness out there. I want to continue doing the speaking circuit and have more conversations about this issue. 

McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer currently residing in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Time Out New YorkThe Huffington Post, and, among others. He has also written about Carré Otis and Celebrity Rehab, among other topics, for The Fix.

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