Up until my senior year in high school I didn’t care much for my weight. One of my favorite foods to eat for dinner was eight (yes, eight) pieces of toast with butter and jam; since I had always been active and ate intuitively, I had no weight issues. During my senior year, I focused all my time and energy on studying for finals and became less and less active. My daily inactivity, combined with regular food consumption, led me to gain about 10 pounds.
My boyfriend at the time told me on several occasions that I had gained some weight. He was a very skinny and lengthy boy, so I felt “huge” and “too big” next to him. We eventually broke up and that was the turning point when my obsession with weight loss began (I should note, however, that I do not blame him in any way, shape, or form for my skewed body image).
At first, I’d eat one meal a day and walk for 45 minutes in the evening. As a result, I lost some weight. Then, I slowly decreased my food intake until my parents started noticing I wasn’t eating as much or as often as I used to. My mom worked at a chiropractor’s office at the time, who was also a naturopath, so my parents thought it would be a good idea if I consulted him regarding my diet (they obviously trusted him and didn’t know any better). I went to his office, excited to receive some guidance, and was prescribed the following daily diet – an unlimited amount of veggies, one chicken thigh, two yogurts, and two apples. He also prescribed a few body weight exercises, like leg kickbacks, triceps extensions, and crunches (aka, exercises for a woman’s most “troubled areas”).
It seemed like I was following a healthy diet because I would eat a ton of vegetables whenever I felt hungry and I got down to about 106 pounds. But then my hair started falling out. I stopped menstruating. My skin color was yellowish/orange due to the high amount of vegetables I was consuming. My face looked gaunt and I looked emaciated. I was constantly tired and slept a lot and, consequently, I secluded myself from social activities; I had zero energy since my entire focus was aimed at losing weight. I was obsessed.
“They don’t understand,” I would say to myself. “It’s my body. I just want to lose that damn weight. I just want to weigh 99 pounds (my magic, weight-goal number).” I thought I was special. I took pride in my will power. No one could force me to eat because I know what I’m doing.
However, my parents soon realized the mistake was with the guidance I had received and things had gotten to the point where they threatened to put me in an eating disorder clinic if I didn’t start eating more. Fortunately, both my parents’ pleadings and the fact that my thick, long hair had become thin and fragile, had an impact on me. I decided I’d much rather be fat than bald. Notice the extreme in mindset-- I’d rather be fat than bald. There was no middle ground in my mind.
So I started eating more and kept active. My hair stopped falling out but I still hated the way my body looked. Fortunately, at the advice of my dad, I had started going to the gym; a couple of days after I joined I was given a full body strength training routine by a personal trainer and I got hooked. I loved the way strengthening my body made me feel and I loved the empowerment it gave me. I felt at home.
I decided I needed to be educated on the subject if I wanted to better myself so I purchased a very comprehensive personal training book written by Dr. Itai Ziv. I absorbed the information like a sponge and was fascinated with everything I learned. However, I was still tremendously lacking in the nutrition department.
Going from barely eating to eating on a regular basis led me to binge eating. I binged because I thought consuming 1,200 calories a day was sufficient for women, as most of you have probably heard before. But consuming 1,200 calories is far from sufficient for the majority of women, unless you’re an extremely petite person. It became a vicious cycle of eating 1,200 calories, doing lots of cardio and strength training, binging at night, trying to fast the day after a binge while burning off as many calories as I possibly could, just to binge again the next day. I was hopeless and ashamed.
“I ate very little and my hair fell out,” I thought to myself. “I am now eating way more than before – 1200 calories! This is supposed to be enough! Why can’t I control my food consumption anymore? Why does my body always want more and more food? What the hell is wrong with my body?”
I was enjoying my time at the gym but I was mentally drained from the constant battle with my body. So about a year later, I started reading more about proper nutrition and why I should be fueling my body sufficiently if I wanted to improve and get stronger at the gym. As a result, I completely changed my ways; after all, I had nothing to lose.
I increased my food intake and slowly, but surely my strength increased at the gym. I gained noticeable muscle mass and felt really good about myself. Now that I had found the missing piece to the puzzle, the cravings and binging at night stopped; I was focusing on nourishing my body rather than destroying it. I realized that working with my body, instead of against it, was what I needed the most. It took me a while to understand this concept but I’m so thankful to be where I am today, both mentally and physically.
If I could go back and give advice to my 18-year-old self, I would tell her the following:
1) Always consult with a professional who has the proper credentials and field experience to help you, such as registered dietitians or certified trainers. Do not consult with a health professional who doesn’t have the credentials. Even then, carefully choose your sources of information – Dr. Oz may be a licensed physician but he will not provide you with credible fitness and diet related information. Check out my friend Bryan Krahn’s article “Spotting Liars, Scammers, and Douchebags,” part 1 and part 2.
2) Educate yourself. Did you read somewhere that a woman should eat 1,200 calories a day to maintain a healthy body weight? Did you come across the article “Five Foods You Should Never Eat if You Want to Lose Weight?” Do not believe everything you read in the mainstream media. Most of the time this information is false and misleading, like the two examples I just mentioned. Instead, read articles and books that were written by credible individuals who have a vast amount of experience in the field of nutrition and consistently back up their claims with science. If you’re interested in learning from the absolute best in the nutrition field,
“The Lean Muscle Diet” by Alan Aragon is a good place to start.
3) Stop being so harsh on yourself. I know, easier said than done. I also know that individuals who are perfectionists in nature will have a more difficult time to relax and take a more moderate approach to dieting. So you ate half a bag of cookies? Then it is time to reflect and assess why you decided to do it. If you’re aware of your behavior patterns, you have the power to change them. Was it true physical hunger? Boredom? Stress? Think about how you can better prepare for next time when hunger strikes. Do not punish yourself and fast the day after or do two hours of intense cardio to compensate for the excess calories consumed. This will only lead to a vicious cycle of overeating and purging. Food is fuel for your body and is meant to be enjoyed, so focus on establishing a healthy and positive relationship with it.
4) Strength training is the best tool for achieving a healthy, fit, and toned physique. Regular strength training allows for better nutrient partitioning. In layman’s terms, this means your muscles will “soak up” the majority of the calories you’re eating as opposed to your fat cells. Moreover, beyond the aesthetic reasons, strength training empowers you, teaches patience and consistency, and, most importantly, builds a stronger mind within a strong body. So focus on performing better and getting stronger at the gym.
5) You are not perfect, nor will you ever be, so stop trying. Perfection doesn’t exist. Instead, strive to reach your full potential and be the best you can be. You’re a human so you will struggle and fall down, but the key is to get back up and keep going.
6) You are not alone. I promise you, there are people in this world who went through hell and back, and today are thriving. Reach out for help when you’re struggling and never give up on yourself.
My battle with eating disorders led me to where I am today. I learned that nothing is more important than emotional and physical health. I learned to respect and be kind to my body. I learned that knowledge is power. I learned to be more, instead of less. Love your body – it’s the only place on earth you can never leave.