Around the age of 17, my clothes stopped fitting properly and because I was acting on a low budget TV show, I could see the changes on screen. I panicked. I started jogging regularly and checking the scale obsessively. Things were ugly at home; my parents were going through a nasty divorce and I’d been kicked out of the house for skipping school, but I now had access to my hard-earned savings. I used my money to rent a basement apartment and invest in a decent mountain bike — with all the gear — intent on riding to set every day. It was a good 30-minute ride and there were times when I just didn’t have the energy to ride back home at the end of the day. Still, no matter how hard I tried nothing seemed to change. I hated the constant temptation of junk food at work — so I took up smoking to stave off boredom snacking. Mentally, my anxiety and insecurities were growing along with my waistband. Food became the enemy as I desperately tried to control the one thing I thought I could: my body.
Eating became a necessary evil. I used to think it was a grand conspiracy; everyone was secretly against me and my personal mission to get as skinny as possible. I thought I was rebelling against society, but I was really just fighting myself. I didn’t understand the benefits of different food groups or healthy eating. In my mind, all food was potentially fattening and needed to be ingested at a minimum and/or later expelled via induced vomiting or laxatives. Fun times.
I’d already gone a full year without getting a period (I was diagnosed with amenorrhea from a combination of working out obsessively, stress and low body weight) when I realized I didn’t just want to look good, I wanted to feel good. Years later, my mom would invite me to dinner occasionally with the promise of, “I made a salad”. It made me cringe even though I knew she was trying. Her salads consisted of a few veggies and croutons. I’m not a rabbit, I’d think to myself. Whereas before people were trying to make me fat, now I felt like they were trying to starve me. No one could win. How does one win? Information about what we should be eating to stay healthy can seem overwhelming with so many different diets and conflicting information. When I first hinted to my family doctor that I was struggling, she suggested I eat more vegetables. Not helpful. When desperation finally surpassed my fear of being recognized, I asked my doctor to refer me to a support group. I was shocked by what I saw and heard. Their stories were scary, they looked…sickly. My impulse was to hightail it out of there — but it was the wake up call I desperately needed.
I started working in gyms, ultimately getting certified as a personal fitness trainer but my particular environment encouraged extreme diets and replacing food with supplements. Again, not helpful. My relationship with food wasn’t going to change overnight but making little changes one step at a time was manageable. I fed my brain first, learning about nutrition and how to cook some basic, healthy meals. Focusing on actionable, positive choices rather than things I needed to stop doing, helped motivate me. Eventually I added healthy eating and weight-loss coach to my certifications so I could help others navigate their way to a healthy lifestyle. Here are some hard-and-fast truths that have helped guide me:
Water: I was never much of a water drinker. In truth, I used to binge on diuretics, trying to rid my body of water — under the misguided notion that it would make me look bloated. Little did I know that water would be my holy grail on the road to recovery. By simply adding water to my diet, the better I felt; benefits included more energy, decreased anxiety and I felt fuller, longer. Granted, it wasn’t intuitive at first; I had to train myself by starting with a few glasses a day and gradually upping my daily intake. I kept a water bottle with me constantly and set reminders to drink at certain times until eventually, it became habit. On workout days, it’s important to drink even more to replace water lost through sweat. A good indication that your water intake is adequate is by checking your pee; clear or light yellow urine deserves to be celebrated.
Not all Fats are Created Equal: Avocados used to terrify me until I learned that not all fats are created equal. Some fats are literally called essential because our bodies can’t produce them and require them to function properly. Fats play an important role in protecting against heart disease, helping the body absorb vitamins, regulating hunger hormones, boosting brain function, regulating hunger hormones, providing energy — just to list a few of its awesome benefits. How do you know a good fat when you see it? A good place to start is by choosing unprocessed foods that are naturally high in fat without a bunch of additives thrown in. Some examples include nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, grass-fed beef, fruits, and vegetables (like super-food, avocado!). Helpguide.org offers more options and information.
Everything in Moderation: The best way to promote long-term healthy eating is by balancing your meals with a combination of protein, healthy carbohydrates (preferably whole grains rather than white to help regulate blood sugar and increase fiber) and healthy fat. Too much of any one food group can throw your body into hormonal distress or create a deficiency so be wary of any diet that requires you to cut out a food group without advice from your doctor. Paying attention to different food groups and their benefits will also ensure you’re meeting your energy needs and feeling satiated between meals without having to increase portion sizes.
Create Healthy Habits: Focusing on one new habit at a time is much easier and sustainable than two or three at once. Consistency over time is key. Be patient with yourself; forming new habits takes time. I started with a goal of trying one new healthy recipe a month — something I could manage — which not only helped give me more options, it got me to experiment with new ingredients. As an added bonus, having a prepared list of what I needed, helped keep my grocery-store anxiety at bay.
Don’t Get Stuck on Counting Calories: Burning more calories than you consume is the rule of thumb when it comes to weight loss — but just like fats, not all calories are created equal. Ever heard of the term “empty calories”? This refers to any food and drink that provides little or no nutritional benefit. Calories are the fuel in food and what give us energy, so it makes sense that the quality of fuel depends on the type of food it’s coming from. Keep this in mind when deciding between a side of broccoli or French fries; the less processed the food, the more overall health benefits you’ll get. What’s more, calories don’t control metabolism, cravings or what type of weight you lose (fat or muscle); hormones do — so it’s more important to focus on quality than quantity. While some people enjoy the process of counting calories, for others (myself included) it can become an unhealthy obsession. If this is you, focus instead on mindful eating. Not only will you eat more slowly (which helps prevent overeating) you’ll learn to appreciate your food more.
Sleep & Recovery: You’re probably thinking, what does this have to do with food? — but trust me, it really does. Lack of sleep and/or rest causes cortisol levels to rise which can interfere with muscle-tissue repair. It also affects ghrelin, the hormone that makes us feel hungry and crave quick, empty-calorie snacks. The quality of your sleep helps determine how much energy you’ll have as well as how good and how hungry you’ll feel. Pay attention to stressors that could be interfering with your sleep.
Surround Yourself with Positive Influences: Positive change can be much harder if you don’t have a support system in place -even if that system amounts to one person in your corner, cheering you on. I wish I’d had better role models for being healthy when I was growing up, but it’s never too late to find inspiration. Ultimately, the most powerful influence is you, believing in yourself.
Hands down, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to work with my body instead of trying to control it. It was never about food; it was about me thinking I didn’t deserve to be happy. Why is it so much easier to be hard on ourselves?! It wasn’t until after I had kids that I started really listening to how I spoke to myself and to the message I was sending. Negative thoughts still happen but I’ve learned to replace them with positive affirmations because if you tell yourself something often enough, you start to believe it — and I’d much rather believe the good stuff.