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Breaking the Cycle of Serial Dieting



How it Begins


My first glance into the diet industry likely started while I was still playing with Barbies. It may have been when I first noticed we had a bathroom scale tucked under the bathroom vanity. Or maybe it was when I noticed my mom eating a different dinner than my sister or I. Or maybe it was a date I remember more vividly when my Grandmother asked me if my mom was eating–she thought she was looking too skinny. We were sitting in her car like we often did, drinking a chocolate Coke from Nell’s-N-Out, a 50s-themed drive-thru we frequented during our grandma dates. We liked to chat about school, family, and our favorite shops. Chatting together was our favorite pastime. My Grandma had always been the knower of all things. She was the central hub for all the family gossip and concerns. Her new worry was about my mom’s weight, how much my mom worked, and whether my mom was sleeping.  I had little information to give her. Up to this point, I did very little worrying about what my mom ate. I was just barely old enough to pay attention to what I ate as a twelve-year-old. 

Was my mom eating? 

Was she too skinny?  

This led me to notice that most of the women around me had grievances regarding their bodies. Growing up, the adults around me dieted–my mom, my aunts, and my mom’s friends. They did Weight Watchers, Akins, and counted calories. They went for power walks in the evenings and sometimes exercised to VHS tapes in the garage. My Grandpa was also a chronic dieter, only he made his own rules. Once he went on the ‘green bean diet’ where he ate nothing but green beans he had simmered (from a can) in his crock pot with bacon. When that didn’t work for him, he moved on to counting calories. My Grandpa will tell you that he has lost the most weight of all of us– hundreds of pounds. He counts the pounds he lost, then gained back, and lost again. 


I’m not sure if it was witnessing all of the calorie restriction, point calculating, or skipping of meals that inspired me to wish I were skinnier, but I do wonder if my struggles with body image would have looked different had there been healthy examples of self-love around me. 

I believe my roots of disordered eating started young. They were planted accidentally by my mom asking, “Should you really be eating that?” or my best friend’s mom asking us “Do you guys really need another one of those?” As a parent, it feels like a reasonable question to ask when a kid regularly chooses Top Ramen as their after-school snack. But as a child, it's confusing when parents stock the pantry with unhealthy foods like Top Ramen. Why is it there if not to be eaten? These questions were asked in an attempt to guide me. They were asking about my food choices and suggesting different options out of love. I was an overweight kid and my food choices and lack of exercise were catching up to me. But nobody knew how to teach me how to eat healthy. What they didn’t understand was that they were shaming my food choices in a way that would affect me into my teenage years and adulthood. Food was a form of comfort and happiness that I needed given some of the childhood stressors I experienced as a young girl. This was a fact I wouldn’t learn until much later in life though.

There was a mirror in my childhood bathroom that as a teenager I would stand in front of while getting dressed. I would imagine my body without love handles. I would envision having the ability to take a knife and cut the curves from my torso that hung over the sides of my jeans. I wished that my tummy would be flat and not resemble the pooch of a pregnant woman. Many of the girls at school didn’t have a pregnant pooch or rolls of fat that fell over the sides of their jeans. In my fantasy, I was like a sculptor using a point chisel to shape and create a beautiful, flawless body. In my mind that body was flat–there were no curves or rolls. The ideal body was unblemished and perfect. But I wasn’t a sculptor, and I didn’t have the perfect body, so each day, with a deep sigh, I would put on a baggy shirt that was loose enough to avoid hugging my curves. I would wear pants with a high waist so I could tuck my tummy in. Then I would layer on makeup, attempting to make myself feel pretty.


Weight Watchers


My mom was young and attractive. She was thin and wore clothing that was in style. She was tan and truly, my mom was beautiful. She was the kind of mom your guy friends at school would ‘check out’. I hated it. To add insult to injury, at this point I was too big to fit into her clothing, further confirming my belief that I needed to be different. After learning I wanted to lose weight, my mom explained to me the general concept of her current diet, Weight Watchers. Weight Watchers, still around today, was founded in 1963 by Jean Nidetch. Jean had been overweight her whole life, and after losing weight with medical guidance she worried about keeping it off. She decided to start a support group and invited a group of friends to her apartment each week. At these meetings, they discussed their goals, their diets, and created challenges to keep everyone motivated. The group grew to more than 40 women making her small New York apartment no longer feasible. This was the beginning of a multi-million dollar company, backed by celebrities such as Oprah and Jennifer Hudson. Eventually, grocery stores were full of products endorsed by Weight Watchers. From pasta to butter to fudge bars, it became easy to assume that if it had the Weight Watchers logo on the packaging, it must be healthy. 


Though the program has changed, at the time the idea was to eat a certain number of points each day. Foods were correlated to a point system and you were allotted no more or no less– you got extra points on days you exercised. There was a local group that met in my community, and my mom and my aunt attended their meetings semi-regularly. I wasn’t a formal member of Weight Watchers (i.e. I didn’t pay to participate) I just followed the general guidelines of the program through the instruction of my mom. I calculated points and began exercising to a step aerobic video I found in the garage. I saw the scale move down and it filled me with hope. I believe in a small way, that moment gave me hope that I could change if I wanted to. And though I did, I was still a teenager. I got a job in fast food and started drinking with my friends. My weight loss efforts were swiftly kicked to the curb. 


Purging


It was while working in fast food that I was introduced by a coworker to the idea of binging and purging as a method to undo consuming too many calories. Leah* was thin. You could see the veins under her fragile skin and she wore baggy sweatshirts because she was always cold. She was older than I was, but I enjoyed spending time with her. She didn’t have a pregnant pooch or rolls of fat that fell over her jeans. If she had to throw up her food to look that way, I needed to. The pattern was continuing: I was comparing myself to those I believed were healthier than I. If my mom needed to diet, then I did too. If Leah needed to purge after eating the foods we served at work, then I did too. 


Binging and purging didn’t work for me, or at least not how I hoped it would. When I felt bad about food I over-consumed, I would go to the bathroom and shove my toothbrush down my throat to gag myself. I would throw up, but it was so difficult for me that I generally gave up too quickly to purge everything I ate. I wondered if it was challenging for Leah, or if it was just me. And though I’m not sure there is a right or wrong way to do it, purging didn’t happen how I expected it to. I’m not exactly sure what I expected, I was only 17 years old at the time and the ability to “Google” things wasn’t mainstream, but I assumed it to be pretty straightforward.  I would gag myself, and all the food I had just eaten would come up. But often I would see healthy foods I had consumed hours earlier, the salad I had for lunch, yet no sign of the pizza or chocolate I had just eaten. My eyes would water and my body would tremble the more I tried. When I was done I would brush my teeth in fear of ruining them, and compose myself before exiting the bathroom to return to work. I didn’t stick with the habit for long. 


The Special K Challenge


My last attempt with fad diets took place when I was not yet 20. I was sitting alone in my apartment, feeling depressed about how I looked, this wasn’t a new occurrence for me–self-loathing. After watching a commercial on TV about the Special K Challenge, I went online to review it further. The diet promised that I would drop a pant size in two weeks and lose up to 6 pounds following their plan. 

The following meal plan was recommended: 


Breakfast: 1 Cup of Special K cereal with half a cup of skim milk

Snack: A piece of fruit 

Lunch: 1 Cup of Special K cereal with half a cup of skim milk

Snack: Special K snack bar or protein drink 

Dinner: A balanced meal, keeping an eye on portions. 


The results were based on the obvious: a significant calorie decrease, assuming of course that a person stuck to it and that they truly had a well-balanced and portioned dinner. Though I find it ironic they expected those of us struggling with our weight to truly know what that meant. And so like any easily influenced 19-year-old, I found myself in the cereal aisle at Walmart anxious to eat Special K cereal and look like the girl on the back of the box. She looked happy. She was jumping for joy, and the red measuring tape around her waist indicated that she had just lost weight. That was what I wanted. I wanted to look like the girl on the box. 


 I fell quickly for Kellogg’s nutrition advice, just like I had relied on Weight Watchers before that. I filled my shopping cart with two boxes of cereal, two boxes of Special K bars, and skim milk. I’d never enjoyed cereal with milk as a kid and I found out the next day, while eating my mixed berry Special K cereal–I still didn’t. It was likely my love for cooking and eating real food coupled with a diet that relied solely on boxed products that shook me awake. Somehow I had to learn how to eat real food to be healthy. Maybe I had been going about this the wrong way. What if I needed to focus more on exercise and allow nutrition to follow?


Zumba


I wasn’t an athlete and I had never seriously participated in sports. I was the kid in the outfield picking dandelions, pulling chunks of yellow petals out as I declared, “He loves me. He loves me not,” over the current boy I was crushing on. I wasn’t competitive, nor was I fast. It was obvious even to me that I wasn’t an asset to my team, and in their defense, I didn’t give them any reason to be. My mom gave up on pushing me to keep trying in middle school where I spent my entire season of basketball sitting on the bleachers cheering on the team. Now, I was ready to consider that exercise might be a necessary endeavor. 


I had the sense at 20 years old to know that to begin exercising I needed to find a form of fitness that felt fun. Contemplating what that might be as my boyfriend headed out for a run I happened to see a Zumba commercial. It looked fun and I enjoyed the music they were dancing to. I wondered if we had Zumba where I lived. Later that day at the Farmers Market I was handed a free Zumba class pass. Olivia was beautiful, energetic, and warm. I wanted to be in her presence the moment she handed me the free pass. She had big naturally curly hair and wore vibrant bright colors. It is likely I would have never tried Zumba had I not been handed a free pass the same day as I saw a commercial. And so I joined a group full of several other uncoordinated women of various shapes and sizes in my first 6 AM Zumba class. I got myself out the door with a couple of early morning exercise hacks I still recommend: I lied to myself and told myself I could take a nap later if I felt tired, and I set my alarm clock outside of my bedroom where I would have to get up to turn it off. 


I could feel my determination build as I did things I’d never done before. I was waking up early to exercise. Starting my day like this motivated me to continue the day healthier by eating well. I ate breakfast and started counting calories, not points, with no restrictions on what I could or could not have, as long as it stayed within my calorie goal as prescribed by the new app on my phone. The app I downloaded also allowed me to plug in recipes I created at home, this pushed me to keep cooking fresh meals and modify them in healthy ways. I started to experiment with recipes–baking with less sugar, stretching portions, and using oil and butter substitutions. I started having fun creating healthy recipes and sharing them with my friends and family. The better I felt, the more effort I wanted to give. I took yoga, Pilates, and kettlebell classes, and soon started running. Within five months of participating in group fitness classes and eating healthy, I had lost 41 pounds. I was ecstatic! I felt a kind of confidence I had never experienced before. It made me want to set new goals, bigger goals. And then with no warning or planning, I found out I was pregnant minutes before my second Zumba class of the day. 


Hard Lessons 


In no way was having a baby the end of my success. I gained weight with pregnancy and had a male obstetrician nag me about the fact I was gaining too much weight the whole time. It was a constant theme, being nagged at regarding my weight. Yet, I wasn’t worried this time, I had new habits to get the weight off and I did. 


Running long distance was the first thing I returned to after having my daughter. This made me constantly hungry. I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but I was hoping that by training for a marathon I would lose more weight. The calorie restriction for weight loss coupled with hours of cardiovascular exercise created a cycle of constant thoughts of food. My first marathon felt like a total bust, likely because I wasn’t eating enough. As expected, running 26.2 miles was challenging, but what I wasn't expecting was dry heaving over a trash can due to GI distress and limping along to the finish line struggling to muster up the energy possible to run. When my husband and I finally made it across, we both had little confidence that we would ever run a marathon again. Instead, I decided to pursue a secret goal of mine, one that felt so far out there I kept it to myself. This goal would also revolve around food and calorie restriction: bodybuilding. 


Bodybuilding is an extremely vain sport, and contrary to popular belief as long as you enjoy lifting weights the challenge lies in that it is more about dieting than anything else. I would have to learn this the hard way–like many important lessons in my life. I hired a coach who didn’t have my health and well-being at heart but I followed her guidance to a T. This was the first time I had ever paid a coach to guide me and as a financially driven individual, I listened to her with true devotion. I was lifting weights 6 days a week for over an hour, doing cardio 7 days a week as prescribed, and teaching a Pilates class 5 days a week–all while eating nearly half the calories my body needed to maintain my weight. By the time I stepped on stage for my first competition, I had lost a total of 75 pounds from my heaviest weight and was 9 percent body fat.


This body fat percentage isn’t abnormal for competitors. Essentially, the individual needs to be lean enough that individual muscles can be distinguished by the judges. This is done through muscle growth and fat loss. In general, bikini competitors don’t need to be as lean as other divisions of bodybuilding, but that rule is constantly being ignored making the competition more challenging. Not only that, the sport today is even more extreme than it was ten years ago when I first competed. My coach directed me toward my goal even if it meant I would feel miserable, lack energy, and struggle with significant hyperglycemia at work. 

There were many things I loved about the sport, but I didn’t enjoy contributing to the pitfalls of poor body image. Those who were impressed by me and inspired by my efforts had no idea how awful I felt. They didn’t know that in order to sit on my stool at work while giving a massage, I had to sit on a pillow, the bones in my butt too exposed to the hard surface to sit comfortably. They didn’t know that I had no desire to have sex with my husband. What they couldn’t see was that I was avoiding social settings if it meant being exposed to food. I was constantly excusing myself to go to bed leaving my husband who had more patience than me to get our daughter to sleep. In my last year of competing I struggled to have a bowel movement–landing me in the ER–due to severe constipation. My diet was affecting my body's ability to pass stool and I just don’t know if it gets shittier than that. After 3 weeks of constipation and misery, I knew that would be my last show. 


I desperately wanted to heal this constant battle between me and what I ate. After 3 years of competing on stage, I decided to focus more on what my body was capable of doing versus what I was capable of looking like. So I started riding my bike. I am making it sound easy– I stepped off stage and pulled out my bicycle. 


And she lived happily ever after. 


But it wasn’t that easy. I didn’t want to give up on bodybuilding because I loved the structure. I loved getting stronger. But I didn’t love being judged based on my appearance. I had been judging my appearance without help for years. While exercising one morning I was listening to Gretchen Rubin, host of the podcast Happier. She posed the question, “What did you do for fun when you were 12 years old?” When I was 12 years old I was riding my bike. The question was to prompt more happiness into adulthood–an age where happiness is often forgotten. So I started cycling while still lifting weights, and in many ways while still eating like a bodybuilder.  I wanted to have fun. I also wanted to feel healthy.


It didn’t matter what I did, the challenges I felt around nutrition followed me everywhere. Cycling, like running, left me hungry and made it difficult to eat what I considered healthy. What I thought I wanted was to be able to eat endless amounts of calories. In hindsight, what I needed was more time to rest and recover–this would have eliminated my cravings for food. But I kept riding more so I could eat more, believing that was the answer, and the more I ate the more guilt I felt about what I ate. Which of course led to more thoughts about food. I had no idea that it would be years before I would learn to enjoy food without making myself work for it. The fitness industry is brutal with its message: food is fuel, and thus should be earned.


Removing Fear


I did many different sports, each time picking up activities I loved. I continued to run after I started bodybuilding, and when I switched to cycling, I continued to lift weights. What mattered was that I kept moving. What mattered more though, was that I fell in love with moving. I wanted to exercise. No longer did anyone have to force me or hold me accountable. I needed to trust myself that my love for moving would be enough to keep me healthy. I also wanted to learn how to exercise without making it all about food. To do this I had to accept that I needed food to be an athlete. It took years to understand that my obsession with exercise and nutrition was continuing based on fear. I was afraid of returning to the overweight girl who lacked confidence and based her worth on how she looked. I also created a business based on exercise and nutrition. Relaxing about my nutrition felt like setting a bad example. 


I am now running ultramarathons, choosing runs because of my love for exploring new trails and visiting new places not as a method to burn calories. After years of practice, I finally feel like I have a positive relationship with my own nutrition and body. It has taken more time than any client or friend of mine would ever want to hear. Nobody wants to hear that reaching a goal takes time. Sometimes, lots of time. But with that, I no longer have restrictions on what I eat and I have a body that has adapted to hours of running. For me, food no longer feels like a battle.


Motherhood 


As my daughter gets older and retains more information, it feels more important that I model a healthy relationship with food around her. I can’t diet anymore or say negative things about how I look. Constantly I worry about how my daughter will navigate her relationship with her body. Nora is 12 years old. In some ways, she is more mature than I was, but in other ways, she is holding on to her naivety better than I did at her age. There are more challenges for parents nowadays than my parents had. Yes, I had posters of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera hanging on my walls with their bare midriffs exposed, wishing I looked half as good as they did. But our kids have social media. They have filtered photos of their friends posing in bikinis all over Instagram, #LifeIsGood. 


 I think about my daughter looking in the mirror at the age of fifteen. I think about her wanting to take a knife to her curves the way I did, wishing she looked like other girls at school or online, and I feel immensely sad. At what point in my adolescence did I believe that I needed to look a different way? When did these beliefs start, and how? Children are twice as likely to think they need to diet by the age of 10 or earlier if they witness their mother's diet. What women say about their bodies and how they eat is constantly on display for their children. In the early years of Nora’s life, I was competing in bodybuilding. Nora’s memories are vague, she remembers the sparkly bikini and clear 6-inch heels I wore. She wonders why I don’t want to do it again which means that she doesn’t remember the restricted diet, my lack of energy, and my general hangry mood. This I am grateful for. I can tell her I don’t want to because I enjoy going out to dinner with her and sharing a cookie at our favorite coffee shop. That is all the explanation she needs, She simply replies, “Yeah, that makes sense.” 


Most of her early childhood included trips to watch mom compete in triathlons or run marathons. It is normal for her to wake up and know that I am gone because I am out for a run or at the gym. She knows her mom loves to exercise. She also knows that her mom prefers to eat healthy but also that she indulges. She knows more about nutrition than most of my adult clients do when they first come to me, and I will never stop wondering if I have introduced these things to her the right way.


Food has many complexities. What parents say about food around their kids matters. I believe that we shouldn’t label food as good or bad. That we shouldn’t cut foods out of our diet or our children's diets unless we are sure it is absolutely necessary–in some ways food elimination has become trendy. I believe that as parents we should lead by example. Going for a walk or doing a fun activity when we are stressed rather than baking cookies and binge-watching TV. Doing so may help teach kids healthier ways to cope with their emotions. But we are all human and sometimes, even as parents, we have to fall apart in front of our kids. It took me the first 10 years of Nora’s life to understand my own relationship with food. Part of that understanding was just time maintaining my weight after a significant weight loss. This is a normal challenge for individuals who have lost a significant amount of weight.  I had to learn not to be scared I would gain back the weight from my late teens and early twenties. It took time to normalize healthy eating and establish a love for movement.  With any luck, I figured it out in time to model it to Nora. 


Striking a Balance


There have been many events in my life that contributed to a path of overcoming disordered eating patterns and striking a balance. I had to hit my own version of rock bottom–binging, purging, substituting food with alcohol, and unrealistic short-term diets. I had to realize there wasn’t a shortcut. I found a love for exercise that helped me burn extra calories while I navigated healthier eating patterns. I ended my marriage and faced various emotions I had been suppressing. I learned I tend to fixate on food as a way to ignore the real problems around me. Until I dealt with those problems, food was going to be an issue for me. I also realized that by eating “enough” I actually ate less, which was a big lesson. What I mean by this is: many who go on diets eat so little that they end up binging and over-snacking, putting them out of a calorie deficit to lose weight to begin with.

Nutrition education is only a small percentage of why we struggle with food and our weight. More often than not the struggle runs deeper than knowing how to make good choices, the struggle is mental and emotional. There may be unresolved trauma that needs addressing, or it could be a matter of general boredom or unhappiness, a lack of overall purpose in life. Whatever it is, it took me more than 14 years to figure it out for myself. During much of that time, I worked with clients trying to help them understand that for themselves. My services were only one piece of the puzzle: education. My clients needed to dig a little deeper than I was qualified to help them with. They needed to quit the job that made them unhappy, resolve relationship conflicts, or see a counselor to help them address lifelong trauma. As a parent to a young girl, it is important to me to work to break the cycle. Luckily, it feels like there is a body-positive movement on the rise. Now I believe we have to learn to balance body acceptance without forgetting what it means to be healthy, inside and out.


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