Brace yourself and grab a cup of coffee, this is a long one.
My journey to my best self was far from linear. I hope that by sharing my story some of you can relate to it or, at the very least, know that we've all had our struggles with food/exercise/self-love - even health professionals!
As a kid -
To say I was born with a sweet tooth would be an understatement. In fact, the first word I could spell was "c-a-n-d-y" because my parents would have to spell it out around me to prevent me from getting overly excited and asking for some - extremely ironic for a kid that grows up to become a dietitian ;). While I definitely developed a taste for healthy foods (shoutout to my Mom for cooking almost all of our meals at home and getting some veggies and fruits in front of me), I ate a TON of sugar as a kid. I felt the need (and the right) to have dessert after lunches and dinners and would anxiously await holidays and events that would provide candy to snack on. Fortunately for me I was extremely active. I played just about every sport year round and I very rarely spent time indoors in front of a screen. This activity level prevented my sugar addiction from creating a case of pediatric obesity, no-doubt.
In high school-
My love for sugar (and fortunately my activity level) continued through my high school years where, again I largely attribute my involvement in sports to the reason my body was able to utilize the excess sugar I consumed. I have many memories of eating m&ms and drinking sugary sports drinks on the busses for away games during volleyball and soccer seasons. One good habit; however, is that I began to develop a natural sense of "performance nutrition". I can't trace it back to a particular game but at some point I began making pre-game smoothies with some of my dad's protein powder (thanks, dad!) + frozen strawberries and bananas. It tasted amazing and I had one of my best games so this habit stuck around. What initially felt like a superstition was actually based in the science of pre-workout carbs + protein for optimal performance.
High school is where my body-image struggles set in as well. I was extremely fit, a competitive athlete and did well in school yet self-love eluded me. Rather than focusing on all the amazing things my body was capable of, I focused on what it wasn't: perfect. This desire for perfection was the cause for SO much unnecessary stress, anxiety and insecurity that occupied more of my mental space than I'd like to admit.
The last piece of significant health-related info that happened in high school was my doctor recommending hormonal birth control pills (BCPs) during my senior year. I'm not going to get into that here (I will be writing a post about this soon) but BCPs made a significant, negative impact on my health and I believe that was the catalyst for the hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficiencies and health struggles I faced down the road.
In college -
Oh college... this was the first time in my life that I was on my own, had to fend for myself with food, there was regular drinking (just being honest), and I was no longer an athlete. This was a VERY bad combination of things that ultimately led to the dreaded freshman 15 (ok, 20). It crept on slowly, and I didn't notice it until I was home from my freshman year and I saw the looks from my friends and family when they saw me. Now, 15-20 lbs is not a huge deal but if I struggled with body image in high school you'd better believe it was amplified at this point.
The summer after freshman year I decided to lose the weight so I dove into the latest nutrition and fitness info that was available. What I found was primarily calorie counting, packaged diet foods, lots of cardio - the usual. These tactics were successful initially, I lost my freshman 15 but it left me exhausted and HANGRY 24/7. I also developed some very negative thought processes that equated my weight on the scale each morning to my worth and self confidence for the day. I fell into the trap of restricting calories as much as possible, never going over my goal on My Fitness Pal and logging hours of running to burn off when I "over did it". These thoughts occupied so much of my time and I was anxious in situations that I didn't have total control of my food. I finally reached a point where I just KNEW there had to be a better way to go about this and my growing interest in the topic ultimately led to me declaring my major in Dietetics.
My BS in Dietetics definitely had its ups and downs. I gained invaluable education in anatomy/physiology, biochemistry and metabolism that built the foundation of my understanding of the human body and nutrition. Without that I certainly would not be able to make the recommendations I do today with conviction. The downside was the vast majority of the diet-specific information being taught just perpetuated the low calorie/low fat/restrictive mindset that I was trying to get out of. Some of the staples in my diet at that time were Special K, 100-calorie packs, frozen lean cuisine dinners, and fat free/sugar free yogurts (gross). I realized I didn't know the first thing about feeding myself in a sustainable, enjoyable fashion - meanwhile, sitting through dietetics coursework every day.
becoming a dietitian -
In the 5 years since my undergrad I completed the required, year-long dietetic internship, passed the national board exam for the RD credential, earned a MS in nutrition & exercise physiology and have had the incredible opportunity to hold some unique jobs in my first few years as a dietitian. The amount that I have learned and grown in this time frame continues to amaze me. During my internship, fueled by my frustration with the way the school-taught nutrition advice made me feel, I began doing my own research and learned some key things: much of the mainstream research is inappropriately funded by food companies/organizations, dietary fats don't need to be shunned and I needed to spend more time looking at the ingredient list than the nutrition facts label: quality over quantity.
From there, I dove into the higher fat, lower carb "real food" approach and started to experiment much more in the kitchen. I loved the creative outlet as well as the control cooking my own food allowed me to have. My first "big girl" job as an RD was a blessing in this regard. I worked for a corporate wellness company and I had the opportunity to teach cooking classes and demos and develop recipes for our clients' wellness programs; this experience pushed me way out of my comfort zone and really fanned the flame of my love to cook!
While switching my focus on quality, real-food had an immediate impact on my energy, my health and my appearance I unfortunately shifted from one extreme to another. No longer obsessively restricting calories but instead obsessively restricting options - I was terrified of any food that wasn't 100% 'clean'. This lead to a lot of anxiety at social situations where I wouldn't have control over every ingredient involved. I found myself avoiding dinner plans, researching menus and feeling enormous guilt anytime I couldn't uphold my "clean eating" standard. I was embarrassed to admit to myself just how much stress and pressure I felt about my food choices, ESPECIALLY since I was a dietitian!
A few other things that contributed to that sticking point was the toll coming off of BCPs took on my body (again, more on that later) and a very imbalanced exercise regimen. My love for running stuck with me post college and I became an avid marathon and half marathon runner. While I can honestly say I did enjoy it, I know now that a running-only program is a recipe for disaster. I remember waking up at the crack of dawn to get a run in before work or grad school regardless of the amount of sleep I had the night before. I remember feeling so incredibly drained and exhausted after 2-3hour long runs on the weekends but I would just drink more coffee and carry on. I remember restricting my carb intake with a goal of burning more fat on my long runs but repeatedly "bonking". The most frustrating thing I realized is that despite the miles logged and the cleanliness of my food choices, I actually began to gain weight again. Sure, the stress of working while completing a MS was a part of that (comps flashbacks, yikes!), but what I didn't realize at the time was how much inflammation and chaos I was creating in my body through repeated, prolonged cardio with no focus on appropriate fuel, rest and recovery.
Once the insanity that is grad school finally subsided, I made a vow to take a step back and evaluate my nutrition and fitness with my increased knowledge from my degree and becoming a personal trainer. I stopped forcing long runs and started to include strength training on a regular basis. That alone created a monumental shift in the way I viewed my body and my training: I was focusing on building my body up, getting stronger and fueling to support my workouts instead of restriction and deprivation. I can't even explain how important that shift was toward cultivating self-love!
From a nutrition standpoint, I continued to tweak what I was doing based on the latest research or ideas I could find from the professionals I followed closely. I dabbled in very low carb/borderline keto, paleo, whole30, you name it. While I learned important things during each of those phases, I never felt truly at ease with my food choices because I still wasn't in tune with listening to what MY body needs.
Fast forward to now -
Several years and several job changes later, I have worked with hundreds of clients in a wide variety of settings and continued to evolve my own health journey as well. I found that though I had initial success on a very low carb intake, over time it left me low in energy, low in motivation and it negatively impacted my sleep. These days carbs are the new enemy number 1 so I remember feeling like I just needed to "low carb harder" to make it work for me. Once again, I realized I was suppressing what my body was telling me: just eat some damn carbs! This increase in carb need was absolutely influenced by my change in training style to more high intensity training and weight lifting - once I added some back in I started to feel energetic and strong again in the gym and the PRs came back - not to mention I finally started sleeping through the night. During this time I also diligently worked on hormonal balance and gut health - I want to chronicle things I've learned in those areas for you soon. All I'll say about that now is that it took a lot of work, patience and consistency but it was ESSENTIAL to my success.
It certainly took some experimentation to determine what ratio of carbs, fats and proteins served my body best. My Fitness Pal was a great tool for me at that time because it allowed me to keep data on what I was manipulating so that I could accurately assess how my body responded to these changes. Through that process I have learned what works best for my body when I want to build muscle, when I want to lose fat or when I simply want to maintain. Viewing food as fuel, opting for nutrient-dense real foods often, and loosening the reigns to be able to include some of my favorites - even though they aren't 100% clean - was incredibly liberating. I no longer feel the need to control every food situation and I can finally enjoy eating out at wonderful restaurants. Food decisions no longer take up my mental space, I feel equipped to make decisions with ease as they come up. I feel confident in adjusting my intake to reflect my changing goals over time. I view exercise as a celebration of what my amazing body is capable of doing. I view food as fuel to support activity, brain power and emotional wellbeing. Instead of blocking my body's signals I now trust my body to tell me what, when and how much it needs and THAT is the most freeing thing!
Through experience (both my own and my wonderful clients') I have arrived at the following conclusions that may help you on your own journey:
- There isn't going to be one recommendation that works for every one. That is a fact. If something is working for your friend/family member/insta celeb but it's not working for you it's time to try something else. Also, there isn't a "perfect plan" either - so don't stress yourself out.
- Your nutrition plan has to match your training style. Different types of exercise require different dietary approaches to maximize performance.
- Your body is SMART. If you listen closely, it is already telling you what you need.
- Real food is always a good starting place. You simply can't go wrong with colorful fruits and veggies, high quality proteins and real fats.
- Tracking your intake is so, so helpful. Sure, it's tedious and time consuming but it can highlight when you are under or over doing it, gives you measurable data and keeps you accountable.
- Cultivating self worth is an absolutely essential first step. Keep the people and activities in your life that make you feel like the awesome person you are!
- Creating lasting change is hard work, plain and simple. There are no shortcuts, magic pills or quick fixes so setting a realistic timeline is everything.
My best advice, and my own promise to you, is to stay open minded to the ever evolving field of nutrition & health. Every day new studies come out that challenge and change the way we think about food and fitness and staying open to new ideas is the best way to find what works for you.
Set a goal and make a plan (or hire a coach to help!). Then track it, stay consistent and then change again if you're not happy with the progress!
If you made it this far, hats off to you for reading this! I would love to hear what you think and what you would like to hear more about. You're the best!