Food Struggles & Victories
Today’s post shares the stories of a few of the Girls Gone Strong ladies and other contributors. After writing and releasing the past three articles – My Experience with Disordered Eating and the two follow-up articles Beautiful Badass Strength Training Principles and Beautiful Badass Nutrition Principles – I reached out to several women to capture their own story when it comes to food.
As I stated in those previous articles, I know that what worked for me when it came to healing my relationship with food will not work for everyone. Therefore I wanted to get stories from other ladies where they reveal their own personal struggles and successes. If you didn’t relate to my experience and can’t benefit from my solutions, hopefully one of the following stories will help you.
There are several stories below, and I strongly encourage you to read them all. If necessary, take a break after reading a couple and then come back later for the rest. You don’t want to miss any of these.
For as long as I can remember, I have been food obsessed and have allowed food to control my life. It started as a kid with a significant and innate love for food whose genes simply could not support such frivolity. My dad used to make jokes about greasing me through a doorway when I grew up, even though I was never overweight. I was just a girl on the “thick” side who yearned to be skinny. For many years that followed, I revolved my life around food. I remember going to Air Force Basic Training and getting through the day by thinking about what I would eat at the chow hall next. I literally lived meal to meal. Then when I was pregnant, despite exercising and eating “healthy” foods, I gained over 50 lbs at only 5’2’’. Needless to say, this didn’t do much for my body image and self esteem. I struggled with having a healthy relationship with food because I couldn’t accept my body, nor could I cease to obsess about food.
About 3 years after my son was born, I found myself disappointed with my body and wondering what I was doing wrong that was keeping me from losing the excess body fat. At this point, I decided to do something drastic. I would begin weighing all of my food, counting every last calorie and taking only one “cheat” meal per week. I restricted my calories to 1300-1500/day and weighed and measured every last thing, down to the salad dressing, along with deeming certain foods “bad” and “off-limits.” I measured every gram of fat I put into my body, even the incidental gram or two, because I was determined to keep my fat intake under 40 grams per day. I logged all of my calories online, and had a white board in my kitchen with a calculator attached. I was a machine when it came to my nutrition and physically it paid off. I ended up getting leaner than I have ever been in my life, at 12% body fat, and gained strength at the same time.
And then I realized I wasn’t any fun. If I went to a friend’s house I would eat before hand or bring food with me. I would always decline the glass of wine over girl talk. I would decline invitations to happy hours and dinners out because it didn’t fit into my nutrition regimen. It wasn’t until a friend joked, “don’t invite Neghar, she doesn’t eat”, did I realize how unhappy I was and how much food had taken over my life. It was stressful and unsustainable. I ended up gaining a lot of fat back because I would blow my diet out of emotion and then I would guilt myself for what I had done. I remember once going to subway on my lunch break to get a salad and not being able to say no to the 3 cookies for a dollar deal. I ate them in my car so no one would see what I had done. That was a turning point for me – who had I become? How had I let food control me so deeply?
I started steps towards a healthy relationship with food by first putting away my food scale. I had become a slave to it and I knew I needed to get it out of plain sight. I then began eating the way I always had, 5-6 times per day, always a combination of protein, carbs and fat, controlling the portions just by eyeing them. I took out the majority of grains because of how they made me feel, but I let everything else be open to consumption. I stopped caring about the amount of fat in the grass fed beef or avocados and I just made sure I always had a big hunk of protein and ton of veggies. I was much more loose with my eating habits which inevitably caused some fat to creep back on. It was a long process of positive self-talk and healing to help me realize that it didn’t matter if I was 12% or 18% body fat. What mattered is that I felt in control of my life. Slowly I began to loosen the grip food had on me by following a few simple and sustainable strategies:
- I ate as much protein and healthy fats as I wanted.
- I limited the starchy carbs I consumed to post training.
- I let myself eat whatever I wanted when I was in social situations. What is life without a little indulgence? (Side note: I can attest to this as we both indulged on ice cream brownie Sundays during our recent Baltimore get together. ~Nia).
- I ate whole foods and very limited processed foods.
- I made sure that every single thing I ate I thoroughly enjoyed – whether it was chicken and veggies or a giant slice of NY pizza.
- I promised to NEVER feel guilt over food.
As my body started to adjust to this (and my personal/professional lives became less stressful), my hormones began to regulate and I saw my body change without the obsession with food. I range from 122-126 pounds depending on how I eat, and I love my body no matter what. My body is strong and graceful and nothing can take that away from me. I have recently started to dabble in intermittent fasting to further break the hold that food has over my psyche and so far the results have been amazing. I know I am still on a journey to develop and maintain a healthy relationship with food but I feel confident about where I am today and the progress I have made. I have greater clarity and focus and a sunnier disposition. I feel free. Free of the obsession to be skinny and the constant comparisons to other women’s bodies. Free of the obsession with calories and macronutrients. And most importantly, free of my own guilt.
My attitude towards food never really became a problem until I left school at aged 17. I was jobless for about 9 months and I spent the days in the house (which was miles from anywhere) bored and lonely. The kitchen cupboards quickly became my friends and each day I visited them time and time again. I had no “off-switch” for my gravitational pull towards the biscuit cupboard, the bread, the cheese, the ice-cream … apparently I had no “off-switch” for my eating full stop!
While I didn’t gain that much weight from these 9 months, I had instilled Disordered Eating Habit number 1 to my life: when bored or lonely, eat and eat and eat!
Actually, whether I was happy or sad, it was the boredom that caused me to eat in this way. As I entered my early 20′s I had gained a total of about 35lbs and I looked pretty chubby. Basically I hated myself – as I discussed in my Body Image Story “Looking Back at Me“.
From this time I developed Disordered Eating Habit Number 2: Binge, Guilt and Starve! I would starve myself because back then I thought that you could lose body fat quicker this way and, when I just got too hungry I would give in and stuff my face. You can probably already guess where the guilt comes in.
It doesn’t end there. Eventually I introduced some light exercise in to my life (from late 2004) and tried to make better food choices, I started to lose weight.
After my Nursing Degree (Spring 2007) I started to attend the gym on a regular basis to treat the symptoms of my arthritis (Ankylosing Spondylitis). This inflammatory condition had caused me to lose that 35lbs and more, so at that point I was VERY thin. After befriending one of the Gym’s Personal Trainers in 2008, I began learning about how to eat “better” for muscle growth; he also introduced me to strength training.
My training and eating filled a void in my life and I loved how I was starting to look more defined. But, after about 6 months I still only had the same shallow goals – look MORE defined, look leaner and stay thin! Disordered Eating Habit Number 3 took me by surprise as I slowly became obsessed with eating healthy! That’s right, eating healthy can become disordered. In my article “Orthorexia and Extreme Leanness” I wrote about how eating healthy can become an unhealthy obsession and how you get caught up in a loop of stress, guilt and self-punishment. For me, I felt so guilty sometimes I would purge the food I had just eaten. Shameful I know, but this is how caught up I was that by eating ONE cheat meal, I would somehow ruin my two-pack!
Since then, I have found MY solutions:
First I shifted my training goals from “trying to attain a look” to performing better (Side note – I love this and it’s what I encourage! ~Nia). By setting strength goals I was less preoccupied by how lean I looked and more focused on what I could do. Actually the rest sort of fell into place!
Next, I discovered Intermittent Fasting (IF). Before I had been trying to stick to 6 small meals a day and hating never feeling full. I spent all day thinking about when the next meal would be and counting down every 3 hours – what sort of life is that! I also find it really challenging to tell myself “no” to the nice foods that I love and can’t give up (chocolate, wine, etc). This method did NOT work for ME; there were too many rules and too many restrictions that it was causing me to feel hopeless and stressed about how I looked and EVEN dreading meeting my friends to eat out. I needed a change and I needed big meals so I felt satisfied, without the rules and with flexibility so I can adapt the eating pattern to my life, not the other way around. So IF provided this very solution.
What have I learned?
I have learned to be kinder to myself, for one thing. I have learned to stop punishing myself for making a “mistake” because I now know that the effects of any diet mishaps are NOT permanent. I now have an inner feedback loop that allows my body composition to stay the same because I listen to when I am hungry and I feel when I am full. I learned that training for performance is far more rewarding than training to look a certain way. For me, I was never going to be happy with the later.
The bonus is that, since switching my focus from how I look to what I can do, I look and feel better than I ever have!
The journey’s not over yet but I now love the path I am on!
I hired a professional bodybuilder as my coach during my first figure competition. For 9 weeks, I ate nothing but white fish, chicken, eggs whites, asparagus, broccoli, and peanut butter—except my weekend cheat meals. Yes, you can read that again, but I’m not kidding.
I would starve on 1,000 calories a day during the week, and then eat whatever I wanted on the weekend. According to him, I wasn’t supposed to go for the salad bar. I was to eat junk. Lots of it, too. I was also supposed to perform 120 minutes of cardio seven days a week (I lied and told him I did, but I maybe got in about 30 minutes a day). This would make me nice and hard on the day of competition.
Over those 9 weeks, I watched my 134 pounds frame whittle down 117 pounds on the day of competition. I hadn’t weighed that much since high school and I don’t think I’d had that bad of an attitude, or that bad of an acne breakout since then either.
For some reason unknown to me, this was how I wanted to look. I fought the urge to eat everything in sight. My sugar cravings were so intense that I kept a bag of candy hidden in my desk. Whenever he would give me to go-ahead to cheat on my diet, I would gorge on the unhealthiest foods I could find.
This mentality stuck with me for several months after my show. I remained on a strict diet with cheat built in. I ended up gaining back every pound I lost over the next three months because I ate this way.
After I did my second competition 6 months later, I realized that I complete veered from goal to achieve optimal health. Right then I knew I had to change. I purged my diet of junk and replaced it with a variety of healthy foods. The whole notion that I couldn’t eat red bell peppers, but had to eat nachos on the weekend completely baffled me. I had no clue why I did it, but I knew it had to change.
The more plush, healthful foods I added back into my diet, the less I wanted junk. It took almost a year, but I completely rid my diet of sugar and processed foods by slowly replacing it with fresh whole foods. I learned that the more fat and protein I ate, the less I needed processed carbs to feel satiated.
As I transformed the way I ate, my skin clarity improved, my fine lines disappeared, and I had a glow about me that I hadn’t seen in years, if ever. I actually looked years younger. I also shed 15 pounds of fat and packed on 15 pounds of muscle. All without counting a single calorie, weighing a single portion, or cheating to get ahead on my diet.
Competing should be a rewarding process and shouldn’t destroy your body along the way. Before you hire a coach, get to know his philosophies and make sure they match your ideal lifestyle. If you are asked to starve, restrict, or over-train just to get on that stage, it’s time to re-evaluate your intentions. How you look on the outside only skims the surface of your overall goal. You want to nourish from the inside out, and never compromise your well being for the sake of a trophy.
When I was growing up, my dad was notorious for dishing up very small portions. When I would groan in dismay he was quick to say, “Eat what is on your plate first; then you can always have more.” Well, that wasn’t exactly true. I remember reaching for seconds and my dad would make disapproving noises, roll his eyes and shake his head. I remember hearing the comment, “Do you really think you need more?”
I often left the dinner table still hungry and became very self conscious about what I ate in front of my father…and to be honest, I still am, and feel the need to justify why I eat the way I do.
(Let me pause here to add that my father is a wonderful man whom I’m very close to. I believe his actions and remarks probably spawned from his own upbringing.)
I lived with my grandmother my whole life and Grandma had different ideas than Dad. She loved to feed me and it was her way of showing me that she cared. “Potatoes will make you strong!” she always told me and she piled mounds of hashbrowns onto my plate. My Grandma told me I was beautiful and skinny almost every day that I can remember, while my Dad constantly felt compelled to remind me to “suck in your stomach”.
My eating habits got ugly as I entered junior high school, and I sustained off of soda, chips and fast food. When I started to pack on the pounds I made the mistake most people make – I began doing an obscene amount of cardio and started to starve myself. I’d go all day barely eating and then I’d do massive amounts of cardio, go home and eat everything I could. I’d feel horribly guilty, promise myself I’d “do better tomorrow” and the cycle would repeat itself, day in and day out.
Fast forward about ten years and I decided to do my first Figure show. My coach took away all of my beloved cardio and processed foods (granola bars, turkey sandwiches, cereal, etc) and put me on a strict diet. A-ha! Something clicked and my body responded practically overnight. I followed my diet nearly perfectly for 18 weeks of prep. (The diet was far too strict but that is a story for another time.) I competed and won…and thought, “Well, now what?”
I remember going to a buffet the morning after my show and feeling paralyzed with fear. All of a sudden, I didn’t know how to eat “normally”. “Could I eat fruit now? I can’t have a starch…I haven’t trained! Bacon?!? No way!”
As silly as it may sound, I was almost brought to tears that day. My freedom was overwhelming and I didn’t trust myself to make wise choices. That is where my true obsession with food began. I worried about every morsel I put into my mouth and found myself constantly crunching macros in my head. I was no longer able to enjoy food – it was either for function or it made me feel guilty. It took a couple of years of my really battling this way of thinking and while it’s a lot better I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still get to me.
Having a lot of knowledge in nutrition is a bit of a double edged sword in the fact that I can’t seem to shut my brain off when I’m eating. “How many grams of protein is this? I bet this has a TON of carbs…” etc etc.
Throughout the years I have discovered that I’m much better off following the directions of a trusted coach. I let him do the thinking for me and worry about my macros while I just follow his instructions. Something as detailed and involved as my current nutrition plan is what would likely throw most people over the edge, but I truly enjoy it. Looking at a piece of paper and seeing exactly what I’m supposed to eat gives me a sense of comfort that my coach is in the driver’s seat and he is doing what is best for me.
It’s all about finding what works best for you!
Even though I’ve been involved in fitness and weight training since high school, looking back, I truly feel that the mainstream media distorted my view of food, health, body image and exercise. In high school, one summer, I felt the need to “lose weight”. I ate white bread jelly sandwiches (like that was healthy), apples and other low cal stuff. I counted my calories (in HIGH SCHOOL!!) and was eating less than 1000 a day. I felt “good” about what I was doing… thinking that 800 calories a day was going to get me “skinny”. When school started again in the fall, everyone at school was like, “You lost weight! You look great!” So I felt like I accomplished something… but I went about it the wrong way.
Things got better and I don’t remember any battles until college. I did the whole “cardio stuff” for months and ate clean, clean, clean. Even after college, after I got married, I battled… something I never shared with my husband. I would eat while no one was looking, chew up my food and savor the taste, then spit it out. I remember “eating” several cookies, but never actually swallowing them. It allowed me to “taste” them without actually consuming the calories. It allowed me to be “out of control” and not have any adverse effects. I struggled with this for months. Cookies, brownies, junk food, even protein bars.
I finally told myself I couldn’t do it anymore. Eventually I would only do it once a day and then finally stopped. I had to get control. I never looked at food as FUEL for my body; I only saw it as tasting good/bad and low calories/high calories, and something that would make me gain weight.
Now, food is FUEL. It is vitamins and minerals. It’s what keeps me moving and healthy. I don’t eat broccoli because it’s “low cal” but because it’s GOOD for me and gives me the RIGHT nutrients my body needs. I enjoy junk food once or twice a week because I WANT to. And I know how to stop and when to stop. I don’t feel guilty about it.
For as long as I can remember I have had a bit of an obsession with food. When I was very little, my parents were strict and hardly ever let us have junk food. In fact, my oldest sister didn’t taste processed sugar until she was 3! My parents divorced when I was almost 5 and when I was around 7, my Mom went back to law school full time as a single Mom with 3 little girls… as you can imagine she didn’t really have the time or energy to monitor what we ate very closely. In fact, she would sit in her car and study and send us in to the grocery store with a list and let us buy the groceries (we were 12, 10 and 7 years old) and we bought as much junk as we could get away with. We also started cooking for ourselves more as my Mom was super busy with school… so that meant a lot of macaroni, cream of mushroom soup, mashed potatoes, and plenty of processed snacks and chips that required little to no cooking. I was super active doing competitive gymnastics 9-16 hours a week at the time and I was actually quite thin, so my weight was never an issue. For years I would have 2-3 grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread with a coke before practice and a double cheeseburger meal with fries and a coke after practice… yuck!
These awful habits continued through my teenage years and by the time I was 14, my diet consisted of a TON of fast food, ramen noodles, cherry coke, cheesy baked potatoes, chicken flavored rice, and pizza. I was still out-training my bad diet (something that can only be done by teenagers and the genetic elite) and it wasn’t until I quit cheerleading that I gained a bit of weight. Over the next 5 years my weight fluctuated significantly and I wore everything from a size 6 to a size 12 (I am 5’10.5”). Finally in 2004 I decided I wanted to get a grip on my health and my body and began a super strict clean-eating regimen.
Over the last 7-8 years I have done everything from 900-1000 calorie “Figure Competitor” diets to eating 2400-3200 calories a day of clean food… but one thing remains the same… I LOVE FOOD! I think about it constantly… what do I get to eat next? What am I going to eat tonight? What am I going to eat tomorrow? When do I get to go out to eat next? When is what’s-her-names wedding? I wonder what kind of food they are going to have there? Ooh I can’t wait for Christmas… I get Mom’s French toast! This might sound familiar or it might sound silly, but this is not an exaggeration in the slightest. I think some people are just more inclined to like food and care about food and think about food more often than others. I have been this way for as long as I can remember and no matter what I do (i.e. follow a plan, not follow a plan, eat a lot of food, eat less food, eat 100% clean, eat 50% clean) I find myself constantly excited about food. I contrast this with someone like my sister or my stepdad… two people who actually FORGET TO EAT on a regular basis?!?! (ß I can’t imagine that EVER happening to me!) And based on lots of observations I have found that for some people food is a really big deal and for some people it’s something they rarely think about.
While I have a hard time imagining a time where I will ever not think about food often or not care much about food, I have been able to get my food obsession under control for the most part. The best thing I have found for myself is to simply really enjoy the healthy food that I am eating. I spend a lot of time and energy making my meals absolutely delicious so that I can look forward to my clean eating almost as much as I look forward to my treats or “off-plan” meals. And speaking of “off-plan” meals, I try to follow a 90/10 rule so that 90% of my meals are planned, healthy meals and 10% of them are less-than-healthy meals so I can still enjoy myself. I also keep almost all of my starchy or sugary carbs for after my weight training workouts as they are less likely to be stored as fat if eaten at that time. Also, if I find myself off-plan for more than a couple of days I don’t get discouraged or beat myself up. I hop right back on plan and go back to eating foods that make me feel good and look good. Like I said above, I am not sure I will ever be someone who has a completely “normal” relationship with food, but using the tips I listed I have found ways to control my eating and not let my eating control me. Hopefully some of you can identify with my story and you find my advice helpful for getting your eating habits under control.
I hope you have enjoyed, and learned from, the information shared by these incredible women. It takes courage to reveal something so personal, and I am indebted to them for their generosity and strength.
Each woman in this article may have had similar battles with food, but every solution is not identical. There is a huge lesson there – you have to find and do what works best for you. It may mean a little experimenting on your part, but take the time to discover what works best for you and don’t try to force something that causes you a lot of unnecessary stress.
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