Howdy, friends! I’m still coming at you from the other side of sunrise (at least as I write this), but without a Trigger HAPPY Thursday video in hand. I’m in the middle of several big projects–one of which I’ll be … Continue reading
If you have ever been on a diet, every started a new fitness regimen, done your first “couch to 5K” or started restricting one or more food groups for the sake of getting a six-pack, then you know it doesn’t, ultimately, work. Even those of us who maintain weight loss/muscle gain through any sort of extreme change a) know in the back of our minds that it’s not sustainable without restriction/over exercise and b) start to indulge in thoughts of guilt and shame over things we come to believe are cheats, slip ups, and undeserved days off.
The problem is that we’re looking at weight loss/muscle gain through the lens of aesthetics masquerading as health.
When I wanted to “get healthy” by “eating clean,” I really meant that I wanted to “get thin” and “have a six-pack.” And please don’t pretend that any of you are above conflating healthy with some fitspirational ideal. It’s such a deeply ingrained part of society now, that I think it’s just a natural impulse to feel this way. (In fact, one of my blog’s commenters pointed out how the message in the Eat-Clean Diet books is really all about saggy skin, love handles, and cellulite, not optimal performance and vibrant health, as they claim…)
As early as the 80s, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, the author of Fasting Girls, noted that “a ‘narcissism based on health’ is not essentially different from one based on beauty. In fact, spokespersons for the new credo of female fitness espouse the same principles of vanity, self-sacrifice, and physical and spiritual transformation that characterized the beauty zealots of the early twentieth century. What is different is that compulsive exercising and chronic dieting have been joined as twin obsessions.”
And our culture has been so inculcated with the idea that the only way to lose weight/get healthy/look sexy is to eat less and exercise more, that we can’t even conceptualize any other solution. And because, according to this mindset, a calorie is a calorie, we have to perform a complex mathematical equation every day just to make sure we’re burning more than we eat:
Calories out must be greater than or equal to calories in. Fats contain almost twice the number of calories that carbs contain, so I’ll just eat more carbs. A stick of gum has five calories and celery has negative calories if you chew fast enough. The nutrition label on my box of cereal has a different number of calories from the one on Fitday, so I’ll make up the potential difference by running longer on the treadmill, which will, obviously, accurately report how many calories I’m burning based on the weight I enter on the machine. I’m starving, so I’ll eat less and move more and that will surely take my mind off of how hungry I am.
Brumberg notes that “[h]ow much one runs and how little one eats is the prevailing moral calculus in present-day anorexia nervosa,” but I’d argue that specialization in this form of math–and the feelings of moral superiority that it engenders*–has moved past the small enclave of anorexics who once claimed expertise and into the mental calculators of your average gym goer.
But the fact of the matter is, a calorie is not just a calorie.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the connection between leptin resistance and exercise addiction, where excessive exercise can actually lead to weight gain. It’s the same thing with calorie counting and restriction.
Calories out can mean that the body starts worrying about starvation and starts holding onto calories in. The wrong calories in can confuse the body into forgetting to let the calories out.
But there’s more to the story. That zero-calorie coke you’re drinking? The artificial sweeteners can contribute to sugar addiction and weight gain.
That marathon you’re running? It could be making you lose the muscle definition you’re working your butt off for in the gym.
We’ve been fed so many lies so often and with such startling earnestness that it’s almost impossible to understand where the falsehoods end and the truths begin. And, like a diabetic in a candy store, we eat up the media’s latest health announcements, experience a brief high, and suffer again from the inevitable crash–which has serious implications for our continued health and wellbeing.
In fact, just check out this infographic from Time.com . I’m going to be honest here: it’s the same crap you’ve already heard: exercise more, eat less. Eat mostly carbs. If you don’t burn more than you eat, you’ll gain weight. Track your calories so you know how much you’re eating.
(On Jimmy Moore’s podcast a few weeks ago, one of the guests said that the best way to make money is to sell a diet solution that actually makes it impossible to reach the goal. It’s really true. Because even if you do manage to live happily through the initial weight loss/muscle gain/body and lifestyle change, you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to maintain it or regain it after you lose it.)
It’s time for a new paradigm, because the only people benefitting from the current ones are the people who work in the diet, fitness, and fat loss industries.
In my next post, we’ll look at one way of making the shift.
*See: “Obsessed is the word the lazy use to describe the dedicated,” et. al.)
I wrote last time about how limiting calories can change the chemicals in your brain–how my dopamine highs from under-consuming calories and my endorphin highs from over-exercising had become inescapable addictions. But there is more to the story than the upset of just a couple of brain chemicals:
We hear a lot these days about insulin, especially in reference to the diabestiy epidemic. [Brief science lesson: Insulin is a regulatory hormone that is secreted by the pancreas in response to the presence of sugar in the blood. Our bodies were only meant to have about 1 tsp of circulating blood sugar, so when you eat foods that contain (or are converted to) a lot of glucose, the body responds with insulin, which shuttles that glucose out of the blood and into your muscles to be burned or liver to be converted to glycogen and stored.]
But there’s another hormone that people are only just starting to talk about (because it’s only recently that science has begun to understand it…): Leptin.
Fat cells, believe it or not are part of the endocrine system (the system related to the release and regulation of hormones). Your fat cells tell your brain when you’re starving and need to eat or that you’re full and good to go by releasing the hormone called “leptin.” When your fat stores are high, your fat cells are full of leptin, which transmits the “we’re full, don’t send supplies” signal to the brain. When your fat stores are low, however, there’s a lot less leptin to go around, and your brain gets the message that you need to eat.*
Leptin is also responsible for stimulating the production of endorphins, the exercise-high neurotransmitter.
Now, there’s a lot of chatter in the science/nutrition world about leptin disregulation as a result of obesity, but what about leptin disregulation in anorectics and eating disordered people? (For a short, really informative look at how leptin disregulation and insulin resistance can influence/be influenced by obesity, check out this awesome video by Sean Croxton: Leptin: Fat-Loss for Smart People)
When you’re eating disordered, an overly restricted eat-clean devotee, or somehow reaching low levels of body fat, your leptin levels go way down. Your brain gets the message that you’re starving and need to build up your body fat levels again, so it tells your body to start craving food. The cravings raise your dopamine levels, making extended marathons of Man vs. Food seem like a good idea. Of course, the restriction is what feeds the dopamine high, so you keep restricting and craving.
Now, those of us who couple the restriction with exercise are in an even more dangerous boat, addiction-wise. Why? Well, as I mentioned earlier, leptin is partially responsible for your brain’s release of endorphins. If your leptin levels are low, your endorphins become low as a result. What raises endorphins? Exercise.
So it’s very possible that your exercise regime becomes necessary to maintaining your mental health. And, as with most addictions, you can easily build up a tolerance. Now you need more exercise to get the same high.
I know this to be true because I’ve lived it. Because I used to read the transformation stories on the Oxygen and Eat Clean websites, because I still follow some of the professional fitness models on Twitter. The stories are all the same: I was overweight (or thought I was) and decided I needed a change. So I started by cutting out processed foods. I felt so good that I went for a run. Then I found (insert clean-eating protocol here) and started lifting weights. I looked and felt so good that I got a personal trainer. In a few months, people in my gym suggested I compete. And so: the diet became a strict regimen of extra-lean meats and “complex carbs” like oatmeal and brown rice. And so: the exercise became fasted cardio in the morning and weights in the afternoon. And so: the complex carbs were “too much food” except around training times. And so: the exercise became necessary to not having a nervous breakdown today and I pushed myself so hard I cried but it was worth it because I’m still in shape. And so: the food became all I thought about and egg-whites-with-stevia are delicious, you just don’t understand because you’re not healthy and devoted like me. And so: exercise became the only thing I cared about, not that you’d understand because you’re busy living your fat lifestyle while I’m flying high on thinness and muscle.
It scares me that this is even a possible thought process, but there it is. (And you can find some version of it on every thinspiration Pinterest board or on some of the fitness pros’ Twitter feeds if you don’t believe me.)
I’m not saying that this will happen to everyone who tries to get healthy, nor am I against cleaning up your diet and starting to exercise–in fact, I’m all for it! But for those of us who may already suffer from neurotransmitter imbalances, trading one addiction for another–cookies and cake for quinoa and kale; “skinny is the new healthy” for “strong is the new skinny”–becomes a real and imminent threat.
And if you’ve ever had these thoughts, it’s okay: it’s not your fault. There are processes in your body and brain that you and I can’t see or hear or feel, processes that happen in the background, processes that can mean the difference between starvation and health, addiction and freedom. And once your body/brain chemistry is affected, it’s hard to see past the immediate need for the next hit.
It’s especially hard when the messages sent out by science and society only serve to encourage these addictions.
*Leptin isn’t the only hormone involved in hunger–there are other hormones/peptides like ghrelin and PYY that are secreted by the lining of your stomach/pancreas to mediate some of those hunger responses…But we won’t get into that today!) For more, check out Wellness Mama’s great explanation here.
To read the whole series in order, start here:
Let me be clear: I was already a food addict. A different kind of food addict, but an addict nonetheless. I’ve been a food addict since I was at least 10 years old.
I can remember back to my Friday night binges on baskets of garlic rolls at Mario’s or Dominic’s, eating between three and six rolls before digging into an adult-sized baked ziti entree; my anticipation of pizza night on Saturdays with Dad, and how we’d have to buy at least two boxes from Pizza Hut because I could knock back five slices on my own–and follow them up with a huge chunk of Tollhouse cookie dough without stopping to consider hunger; my ability to eat both servings of boxed Stouffer’s french bread pizza and still want finish off the tortellini I’d cooked for me and my sister; my insistence that my favorite food–above even chocolate and candy–was bread, and my inability to stop wanting after two and then three pieces of toast for breakfast…
After the soy-free summer, my tastes changed somewhat. When I cut out processed foods, sugar, and soda, I cleansed my palate of the hyper-sweetened and -salted foods that had “nourished” my childhood. Instead, I became dependent on my breakfast cereal and peanut butter sandwiches, living for my second and third helpings of spaghetti. (And once I reintroduced soy, I reintroduced chocolate–unable to concentrate after lunch in school if I didn’t buy a pack of peanut M&Ms–not because the stimulants in the chocolate helped me focus but because the cravings became more important than anything my teachers had to offer.)
A large part of my anorexia–the part about which I was conscious and in which I was aware of my engagement–was my attempt to control my addiction to volume. The irony here is that “anorexia” literally means “without appetite.” Rarely, I think, is that actually the case with this disease. In my own experience, once I start eating, especially breads, sweets, and even fruits, I can’t stop. I don’t want to stop. Even when I’m full. And anorexia, a rejection of that fullness, was the only way (I thought) that I could control myself.
“There is a very simple, inevitable thing that happens to a person who is dieting: When you are not eating enough, your thinking process changes. You begin to be obsessed with food. They’ve done study after study on this, and still we believe that if we cut back fat, sugar, calorie intake, we’ll drop weight just like that and everything will be the same, only thinner. Nothing is the same. You want to talk about food all the time. You want to discuss tastes: What does that taste like? […] Salty? Sweet? Are you full? You want to taste something all the time. You chew gum, you eat roll after roll of sugar-free Certs, you crunch Tic-Tacs (just one and a half calories each!) You want things to taste intense. All normal approach to food is lost in your frantic search for an explosion of guilt-free flavor in your mouth, an attempt to make your mouth, if not your body, feel full, to fool your mind into satiety. You pour salt or pepper on things. You eat bowls of sugar-coated cereal (no fat). You put honey and raisins on your rice.”
-Marya Hornbacher, Wasted, a Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia
When I started my intensely restrictive “eat clean diet,” I thought that I was finally free. I convinced myself that I was no longer hungry, that I was sated by my 100-300 calorie meals. But in the time between meals, I thought about food. I ached for it. And not the dry turkey breast and 1/2 cup of steamed broccoli, I ached for sweet and starchy. I used stevia (a “natural” sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant and 200-300x sweeter than sugar) on nearly everything, faking out my tastebuds in order to trick my lizard brain into thinking it was satisfied by egg white pancakes. I ached for my morning oatmeal. I substituted stevia-based whey protein powder for real food in as many meals as I could justify to myself. I spent my entire day in anticipation of my stevia-sweetened casein-and-peanut-butter pudding every night.
And worse, I watched the Food Network obsessively. I subscribed to allrecipes.com and read their daily baking email. I scoured the internet for decadent recipes, reading blogs like Cookie Madness and The Picky Palate so I could live vicariously through someone else’s Pretzel Caramel Shortbread Bars and Brownie Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies. I baked, constantly, so that I could at least have the smell of warm cookies saturating the air, enveloping me like an old friend.
Even as a vegan, I was still addicted to sugar and grains. It was all I ate, all I craved. Moreover, my vegan diet was just an animal-free facsimile of the bodybuilder’s regime: I inflicted upon myself the same rigid routine, eating small meals every 2-3 hours, aching with longing for the next helping. I sweetened my green juice with Stevia, and I couldn’t get through a morning unless I followed my green juice with low-sodium sprouted grain bread. Rice cakes were my midmorning salvation. My sugar addiction found a new home in extra servings of fruit,* wads and wads of bubble gum, packets of stevia poured onto anything that should taste sweet but didn’t. I still looked forward to my after-dinner peanut or almond butter (now with vegan chocolate chips added) with an intensity that defied explanation or avoidance (and I was usually so depressed about finishing my snack that I would open a box of cereal and eat that–dry–and then go to bed feeling painfully full but unsatisfied).
And through it all, the only thing I could think about was the food I couldn’t eat, wasn’t eating, wanted to eat.
*3 apples a day plus the pear in my green juice, entire 2 lb. bags of grapes in one sitting, etc.
A quick disclaimer before we get into the (lean) meat and (sweet) potatoes of today’s post: I have nothing against Tosca Reno or Kennedy Publishing or the fitness industry in general. In fact, I think the Eat Clean Diet books are incredibly helpful in taking many unhealthy individuals through the painful and confusing first steps of rejecting processed foods and healing their bodies. I think that often, however, the message is muted (or mutated) when “eating clean” becomes “Cooler 1,” and unprocessed foods become meal replacement. There is a fine, fine line between counting calories for awareness versus counting calories for restriction, and, all too often, that line gets crossed. Obviously, it’s easy for an individual living with ED to take any diet recommendations too far–as I did and still struggle not to do; therefore, please keep in mind that I’m not singling out Tosca and friends–I’m just writing about my experience and the particular avenue through which I found new ways to restrict myself.
Also, for full disclosure, I still read & subscribe to Oxygen Magazine. I think it’s one of the better fitness magazines for women available today–I just take everything I read with a grain of (pink Himalayan sea) salt.
Let me just start by saying that I was really not interested in starting another “diet.” I obliged my mom by doing the Whole30, but I was, by this point, sick of fads, trends, challenges, and set “end dates.” I was finally starting to open my eyes to the fact that ED’s restrictions were…well, restricting.
But, that being said, I had NO idea how to break free from that system. I had spent too long following my bodybuilding diet, spent too many years structuring my life into low-calorie meal-sized chunks, spent too little time thinking about anything but the advent of my next meal.
When I first met ED, he didn’t bother explaining the hows and whys behind my manipulation of food and exercise; he only demanded that I limit the former and overdo the latter. I understood (or thought I understood*) that controlling my body involved a relationship between calories in and calories out, but I didn’t dare waste the extra energy trying to dig deeper when ED had already shown me the method that required the least amount of energy for digging my own grave.
So when I started on my “Eat-Clean” journey, the journey that began when I picked up my first Oxygen Magazine and learned about the carefully controlled food-world of the figure competitor, I didn’t see ED’s simple “calories in-calories out” formula lurking behind Oxygen’s glossy pages.
If you’re not familiar with the Eat Clean Diet, as devised by Tosca Reno and her late husband Robert Kennedy, it’s a series of rules (and books) devoted to giving men and women control over their diets. The basic premise is perfect: eat unprocessed foods (as close to natural as you can). Avoid packaged goods and ingredients you can’t pronounce. Eat fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins. And those, if anything, are perfect recommendations from which to begin building a healthy diet.
There are also rules. Eat six small meals a day. Eat every 3 hours. Eat meals high in lean protein and complex carbohydrates, limiting fats (although they do recommend eating some healthy fats like avocado and olive oil). Limit “cheat” meals.
Again, not terrible recommendations. And for individuals who have been struggling with weight or eating processed foods their whole lives, these recommendations and rules can incite huge changes in habits, body composition, health, and lifestyle. The problem is that they were written (and promoted) by individuals whose background is in the restrictive and disordered world of fitness–and when restricted and disordered individuals (such as myself) pick up the same book of rules, we see validation for our disorders and a challenge to restrict even more.**
Let me explain:
First and foremost, eating clean for fitness involves more than a simple calories in or out equation. It involves knowing how many calories you’re eating, the calorie-per-gram breakdown of the macronutrients, the ratios of your macronutrient intake per meal and per day, and the correct times to eat said macronutrients. If protein and carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram and fats are 9 calories per gram (and alcohol is 7 calories per gram, but you aren’t drinking it anyway because it was made of empty calories that would get you fat and eff all those studies about resveratrol in wine, take a capsule and stop whining about being the designated driver…), then obviously there are two macronutrients that can “fill you up” for fewer calories (i.e. protein and carbs–and don’t get me started on complex versus refined carbohydrates…), meaning fat-will-make-you-fat-so-eat-oatmeal-instead.
The idea behind the six small meals, the high protein, the diet itself, is to trick you into thinking you’re eating a lot. And, technically, you are. I probably went through enough extra-lean turkey breast and chicken breast and egg whites in a week to feed a family of four. But that being said, there aren’t that many calories in any of the lean proteins (120 calories per 4 oz give or take according to my online calorie-counting program). And there aren’t that many calories in the non-starchy vegetables I was carefully measuring and steaming. I filled the void with oatmeal, oatmeal, more oatmeal, and some sweet potatoes, until I got on the “leaning out” kick.
Sure, I was “encouraged” to eat more healthy fats, but there was also those 5 extra calories per gram lurking in every improperly measured tablespoon of olive oil, so it felt safer to use a canola oil spray for cooking and to leave my salads dry.
While the suggested meal plans in the magazines boasted daily calorie counts of anywhere from 1600-2100 calories, I thrilled in being able overachieve by taking my counts lower. 1200 calories, the amount the female body needs just to exist on a daily basis, was my daily goal (although my nightly peanut butter or cereal binges usually put me over to about 1400-1600 until I went cold turkey).
Moreover, for all the preaching about ditching the packaged goods and eating “real food,” there was a lot of processed junk that made its way into the sample recipes and suggested snacks. Whey and casein protein powders, soy and almond milk in cardboard boxes, packaged yogurts and protein bars…I even ate my egg whites from a carton (no need to buy the whole egg since the fat in the yolk was offensive to me).
And while the foods themselves were barely enough to keep me sated, the routine and the counting and the measuring fed my obsession. And obsession, if you remember, is one of ED’s favorite foods.
Because what I was doing had been encouraged as part of a “healthy” lifestyle, I ate my protein-powder-and-egg-white microwave muffins from beneath my health halo.
And my food routine–100-300 calories meals eaten every 3 hours–led me into a cycle of starvation and reward, of intense hunger followed by the brief, beautiful moment of indulgence followed by regret and sadness (for having eaten so much, for having finished the meal, for still wanting more) that became intense hunger once again as the hours passed.
And the cleaner I tried to eat, the healthier I tried to become, the faster I fell toward a mental and emotional rock-bottom:
I was a food addict.
*I’ll discuss the implications of this statement in another post soon…
**And I suppose I’m technically just able to speak for myself, but go take a look at some fitness models’ twitter feeds or read their blog posts, and then tell me that I’m the only one who thought (or thinks) this way. Anyone who can wax poetic about egg whites sweetened with stevia needs to seriously reconsider her relationship with and understanding of food. Again, personal opinion, but…
…for a couple of random updates and thoughts:
– First and foremost, the surgical procedure was short and simple, and now my ankle has no choice but to heal. The doctor put me in a hard cast this time so that there would be less chance for reinfection. So now I’m once again hopping about on crutches, but hopefully for the last time.
– The allergic reaction also appears to have calmed down. It still hurts to run my skin under hot water, but I ate grapes without dying, so I suppose that’s a good sign.
– Most importantly, I am absolutely flabbergasted by the response to my blog. It’s funny: when I started writing a few months ago, I was just planning to share this new way of eating and living that had helped start to free me from my ED, and it’s become so much more. As I started to explain why I first ate red meat after 13 years, I fell down the rabbit hole that was my introduction to ED, and in the process, was forced to face some of my hardest truths–truths from which I’d hidden for a very long time. And that inspired me to go out and seek help.
But nothing has helped so much as your support, and your willingness to share your own stories.
And I can only hope that, as I get through my story and start sharing solutions, that you will continue to share your stories with me. I can only hope that this blog becomes a place for recovery–not just for myself, but for all of you out there. I can only hope that we can, together, find a way to stop becoming a nation of starving girls, yo-yo dieters, fad dieters, overweight-and-hating-it, calorie-counters, over-exercisers, and people out of touch with our own bodies. I can only hope that we can all work together to find a solution.
Anyway, I promise to keep up my end of that as best I can, and I hope that you’ll stay with me–and invite others–along the journey.
Thanks for sharing the love, guys.
And now back to your regularly scheduled programming!
P.S. Be sure to check out my spiritual bucket list below. Maybe it can be inspiration for one of your own?
Today, I just wanted to say a few words on the “strong is the new skinny” phenomenon, since it seems to have popped up in my life multiple times over the last few days.
And I know that the following is out of context if you don’t know the rest of the ankle-and-ED story, but bear with me, since it’s what I’m dealing with right now:
Right now, I am not strong. Right now, I can barely stand on my own two feet. Right now, I literally have no balance.
The infection in my ankle, the synovial inflammation, the atrophy of the muscles, the months of poor, compensating movement patterns–all of these things have kept me from pursuing my “strength” and “health” goals.
I am not fat, but I am not muscular. I am not large, but I no longer wear my “skinny jeans.” I am not unhealthy, but I am not fit.
HOWEVER: I am deconditioned, but not decommissioned.
I am no longer able to do what I used to do, but I have been given a new agency: the power of acceptance. I have let my ankle be an excuse for why I couldn’t achieve the aesthetic goals I thought were so important, but in the end, it became an excuse for me to tell ED “no.” I can’t do hours of cardio. I can’t even go swimming. There is no outlet for my obsession, and so I have had to learn instead how to cope.
And in learning how to cope, I opened my eyes to the Monster in the Mirror who was terrorizing me with images of fitness models and unrealistic goals. I opened my eyes and looked at some of the women who are competing and realized how thin and sickly they look. They are “strong” and they are “skinny,” but I know all too well that somewhere, gestating inside of them, are the seeds of malnutrition, adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalance, and mental/emotional disorders such as BDD and ED.
I know, because even though I never had the chance to compete, I was there with them. I have all of those problems because I allowed myself to believe that I had to fit an ideal–not of the waif-like skinny models of the 90s, but of the 0% body fat fitness models of the millennium.
Yes, strong is important. But strength has nothing to do with an aesthetic ideal. Strength–and health–can happen even without fasted cardio and tupperwares full of boiled chicken and steamed broccoli. And, yes, I still think muscles are sexy; however at this point, I’ve been forced to accept that it’s not about body fat levels or lack of cellulite, it’s about nourishing my body enough to survive until tomorrow, and as many tomorrows as I can after that one.
I also opened my eyes to the “regular” women (and men) I know, who post and tweet and talk about eating less and exercising more and how fat they think they look. All of the negative self-talk, all of the unnecessary worrying…wouldn’t life be so much better if they could learn to appreciate, nourish, and augment the strength they are already capable of?
Yes, being strong is an admirable goal, but what is strength without balance?* What is weight loss/gain without confidence? What is life without happiness? Where is the strength in a world dedicated to ED?**
I spoke to a woman the other day who couldn’t understand why I was against the fitspo images of “strong is the new skinny.” She is strong, and she is proud of her muscles. And she has every right to be. But for her, muscles are a means to improving athletic performance, not augmenting the clothes she wears. She is concerned with how many pounds she can lift in so much time, not by how much her triceps “pop” in a sleeveless shirt. She uses her abs instead of looking at them. Every person should be so lucky to have that kind of relationship with his or her body. “Strong is the new skinny” makes us want to get fit because we want to look a certain way; the athletic/muscular performance is considered only a side effect.*** But right now, “strong is the new skinny” is something I am not and cannot be–and I am not alone in this.
Letting go of the look and striving for the be is the only cure. And that means letting go of the have to and the should. It means investing in a strength other than the one that ED offers–call it a spiritual strength, call it an emotional strength, but call it anything but “strong is the new skinny.”
With my injury, I have lost the ability to train the way I used to. Even the basics are less available to me as I try to keep the inflammation in my body down (and let the antibiotics do their work). It has been a long time since I have been able to devote hours to the gym, but I have made do. And I am still strong.
No, I can’t do a pull up, but I am still strong enough to chin. No, I can’t run a mile, but I can hold a plank for 2 minutes. I will celebrate whatever strength my body will let me have while I heal, and I will be gentle with myself until I can get my ankle strong again.
That’s the kind of strength I can believe in–and skinny be damned.
*And I’m not just talking about being able to do an overhead press while standing on a bosu ball…
**Even if you don’t have a clinically diagnosed ED, by continuing, spreading, and promoting the negative self-talk, the abnormal and unattainable body ideals, and transmutation of health and wellness into aesthetic goals, you’re helping keep ED alive–even in your own life.
***I’m sure if personal trainers+ had a dollar for every client who came to them seeking to look better and then complained about having to work out, training would be a much better paid profession. If you go to the gym because you want to look a certain way but hate every second of it, there’s something wrong. Find a way to be active that makes you happy, and the aesthetics will follow.
+To clarify, I’m talking about general population trainers, not specialized trainers like strength coaches, athletic coaches, physical therapists, etc.
Just a quick note: we’re getting into some of the most recent (and, frankly, most difficult) parts of the ED here. I just wanted to post a little disclaimer here that NONE of this is to be considered “pro-ana” AT ALL–please, if you feel yourself identifying with some or all of the thoughts and behaviors I’m posting here, please please please seek help. Tell a friend or family member. Find a doctor. Reach out. An ED is a very serious disease with some very serious consequences, both psychological and physical, and you do not deserve to live in pain. Please don’t isolate yourself: there is hope and there is help outside of your own mental prison.
Moving back to Florida felt like failing.
Here I was: 23, salutatorian of my high school class, having both graduated from college a year early (and summa cum laude) and successfully managed a high school drama department, and yet now I couldn’t manage my own life. I was moving back in with my mother. I wasn’t going to get my MFA from an Ivy League or become a dramaturg at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or work for the New York City Center’s Encores!.
I felt like my life was completely out of control. Fortunately, ED was right there beside me, offering the magic pill: control your body, control your life.
I was aware that I had a problem–that I was addicted to my new Eat-Clean lifestyle–but I was hellbent on not giving it up. Even though I didn’t yet have a car or a job, I went to the Busy Body Fitness Center up the road each day and worked out. I was nearing the end of my eight-week transformation challenge, and I refused to miss a muscle-building moment.
As soon as the transformation challenge ended, I knew that I wasn’t thin enough. Looking at the pictures of the other women online, I knew that I still had work to do. I beat myself up, knowing I hadn’t been compliant enough with the transformation diet–some days I had had a bowl of cereal before bed (old habits die hard) or had even god forbid snuck a handful of chocolate chips past ED.
At the gym, one of the trainers there asked me if I was training for an NPC* competition. I said I wasn’t, but immediately went home and signed up. This was going to be how I made up for my transformation failure: I was going to train for a Bikini competition.
My reasoning was this: if I wasn’t good enough to use my brain to impress everyone–my Ivy League dreams were still stuffed inside the boxes I’d shipped home but never unpacked–then I was going to use my body to prove I was worth something.
I started a new regimen of training, which involved alternating squat and deadlift days–with plyometric days in between. I cut down on some of my cardio since I was no longer running to and from the gym, but I still managed to log hours upon hours on the arc trainer. I poured over pictures of figure competitors and studied training logs and meal plans in my copies of Oxygen, Muscle and Fitness Hers, and Fitness RX while I elliptical-ed away my calories.
I was also becoming more and more obsessed with eating–and eating the right things at the right times. I was downing protein powder two to three times a day (whey in the morning after my workout and mixed with water and cinnamon as a pudding for my mid-morning snack, and casein mixed with water and cinnamon as a pudding for dessert). I cooked batches and batches of boiled chicken and ground turkey and stored them in the freezer for easy access. I made egg-white and oatmeal pancakes. I ate sweet potatoes and green beans and lettuce and didn’t taste a single thing.
The Eat-Clean Diet told me to eat six meals a day, spaced three or so hours apart. I took that to heart and, of course, to the extreme: If I wasn’t shoveling tasteless fuel into my body every three hours on the dot, I would start to panic. ED would start to whisper threats in my ear: My muscles were going to shrink. All of my hard work was going to be thrown away. I was going to gain weight. If I couldn’t get to my cottage cheese and blueberries or dry tuna fish, I would start to hyperventilate, my chest closing up and my head spinning. I felt like I was going to die.
That also may have had something to do with the hypoglycemia from the fact that, despite eating six meals a day, I was starving myself.**
This was no way to live my life. I knew there was something wrong. But I loved looking in the mirror and seeing my beautiful muscles and knowing that they were my justification for not killing myself. My muscles were going to prove that I had worth.***
*NPC stands for “National Physique Committee.” It is one of the amateur bodybuilding, fitness, figure, and bikini organizations, and certain NPC shows act as qualifiers for a pro committee like IFBB (International Federation of Body Builders).
**I lived my life from meal to meal because I was only eating 100-200 calories at a time. I was constantly hungry, counting down the seconds until I could eat again. When it was finally time to eat again, I would inhale the food, torn between consuming everything as quickly as I could and savoring every last bite. When the food was gone, I would sink into a depression that would last until the next meal time. Needless to say, I wasn’t much fun to be around between meals–and god forbid you get in my way when I was cooking…
***I spent most of my time worrying about what my friends from high school would think of me. I had been one of those “most-likely-to-succeed”, type-A kids who everyone just assumed would go far. I had such a low sense of self-worth, that I took their dismissive “stop-worrying-you’ll-be-great-at-whatever-you-do’s” as threats–in other words, if I wasn’t great at whatever I did, then I would be a complete failure. I was so afraid of disappointing everyone, that I just went ahead and disappointed everyone (read: myself) to prove they were wrong for having had faith in me. It’s taken me a long time to start to separate myself from this need to live up to what I have falsely believed are other peoples’ expectations of me. (And there are still days when I wake up and wish I had a better life to display for those acquaintances on Facebook. On those days, I have to remind myself that I am on my own, non-traditional journey–and that I can’t base my destination on what I imagine is someone else’s ideal.
Just an FYI, this isn’t a paid review of Equinox (although if they *WANTED* to pay me–or let me work there–I’d be totally cool with it. Like, really cool with working there. Please hire me?
From the moment I walked into (okay, ran into) the Equinox gym on 92nd Street, it was love at first sight. The gym was only one mile from my apartment (so I could add two mile runs into fitness plan for the day), and easily one of the most breathtaking gyms I’ve every had the pleasure to train in. If you’ve never seen (or heard of) Equinox, I urge you to get your butt in gear if only to go sightseeing. Luxury barely even begins to describe it. State-of-the-art equipment; rooms for physical therapy and Pilates reformer classes; group fitness classes that start national fitness trends; eucalyptus-scented towels…You name it, they had it.
They also had the kind of personal trainers that I aspired to be: fit, rippling with lean muscle, and knowledgable in everything from self-myofascial release to functional training.
This place was (and is), in my mind, the very definition of fitness.
On the day I came in to apply for the free trial, I had to sit down with a membership counselor to discuss my options post-free-trial. As I had during my other free-trial sessions, I played dumb. Of course I nodded my head and tossed him a nonchalant smile while he threw ridiculously exorbitant numbers back at me (seriously, how can people afford monthly gym fees that were almost as high as my rent?). Sure, I’d be signing up for a membership. Sure, I’d be using the gym even though I had one on campus. Sure, I’d be happy to discuss my options once I’d found a job.
That week became one of the happiest in my fitness career thus far.
At the end of the week, I spoke to the counselor again. He noticed how stoked I was on becoming a member–he had run into me several times during the week while giving tours to other potential members and knew how serious I was about my fitness–and he sympathized with my poor-student’s sorrows. He offered to extend my free trial another week.
I was so happy, I baked the man cookies.
After that week, my free-trial membership card found itself on auto-renew. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but that man saved my sanity and my bank account, at least temporarily. I also started to get to know several of the trainers there, and one even said he’d recommend me once I had my Personal Trainer certification.
Equinox had become my bliss.
During this time, I also got myself a workstudy job with the Arts Initiative on campus. The pay was lousy, but then again, it was a workstudy, so I didn’t expect much. At least I had a job, and a fairly good one at that. It was only a short subway ride to 125th street from my apartment, and I was able to gain some good experience working in office administration, social media management, and arts blogging.
With a 9-to-5, however, I had to prep my meals in advance. I spent hours on Saturday and Sunday shopping for food, prepping veggies, cooking and freezing large batches of turkey and chicken breast, and packing and planning for the week. I ate my Eat-Clean-approved six meals per day every three hours on the hour, with snacks of apples and almond butter or berries and cottage cheese interspersed between the monotony of egg-whites and tuna.
Every night, after my post-work meal, I would study for my NASM certification, and dream of someday working at an amazing luxury gym as a master trainer. It was so close I could taste it. (And it certainly tasted better than boiled chicken breast.)
*Yes, I realize that the proper word I’m looking for here is “solstice.” Equinoxes are in the summer/fall; however, while factually incorrect, “Summer Equinox” suits my blog’s purposes for today.
The scales tipped from “healthy obsession” to “obsessed with healthy” as soon as I got the May/June 2010 issue of Muscle and Fitness Hers. But before I go there, let me rewind:
I finished the semester (with perfect grades), but I put the Deans on notice of my potential departure from the university. I had begun seeing a psychologist at the University health center, and, let me tell you: he was a real trooper. Because I was constantly on the verge of a complete breakdown, I went through a box of tissues (at least) every time I stepped into his office. He seemed, as the days dragged on and my mental state completely deteriorated, almost deflated. It was as if he was running out of steam trying to keep me from derailing. As summer neared, he suggested two things: a medical leave of absence and depression medication.
Unconvinced by either argument, I tried to keep chugging along with nothing but talk therapy and my morning gym sessions.
Part of my anxiety stemmed from my quickly dwindling finances. This last semester had completely depleted the last of my savings from teaching, and I was forced to take out more loans. I decided that, no matter what I did–whether I stayed and became a professional dramaturg or left and found something equally fulfilling to do with my life–I would need to find a job that would help me buffer some of the costs of living in the most expensive city in the US.
That was when I signed up for the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s Personal Trainer certification.
Finally, for a few hours every day–and even outside of the gym–I felt like I had a purpose. Studying anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and program design just…made sense. There was nothing subjective about it, no artsy interpretations, just science. And the kind of science that could be used to help other people, make them better. I loved it.
This was the good that came out of my obsession.
The bad? It showed up in the mail with my latest copy of Muscle and Fitness Hers.
In the May/June issue, the magazine had an eight-week transformation challenge. Designed by a renowned trainer of figure competitors, the challenge had two four-week training periods, which mixed traditional resistance machines with stability exercises in week-long body-part splits.* All well and good. At least I had a progressive, prescriptive program to follow (instead of the bits and pieces I was cobbling together pre-NASM).
The problem was that the transformation prescription included a meal plan.
And if you’ve never followed a fitness competitor’s meal plan, then consider yourself well-fed. The gist? Egg whites, protein shakes, plain chicken breasts, fish, turkey, salads, steamed vegetables, and the occasional sweet potato. Limited fruit, carbs, fats…mainly protein, protein, protein. And there were numbers attached to everything. I could eat 1400-1600 calories per day, and every morsel had to be accounted for.
I, of course, knew that I could do better than that. If fitness models could eat clean, I could eat cleaner. I would do 1200-1400 calories per day. I would eat only extra-lean protein. I would substitute real food with a scoop of protein powder. I would add extra cardio at the end of my transformation weightlifting routine.
In eight weeks, I was going to look like a fitness model and enter the transformation challenge.
The only problem with this goal was that the University gym closed for several weeks over the summer, so I would have nowhere to work out. And I was strapped for cash, so a pricey gym membership was very much out of the question. So I came up with a plan: I would go to every gym in the area and sign up for their free trial. One gym only had a three-day period, while two others had full weeks. I figured I would just have to be creative for the remaining days until I could sign up for a summer membership on campus.
And that was how I discovered Equinox.
*For the uninitiated, a “body-part split” is a way of designing a training program to emphasize specific body parts on a certain day of the week. For example, Monday might be a chest day with push ups, presses, and flyes, while Tuesday might be for biceps and triceps, featuring lots of curls and extensions, etc. Many trainers have moved away from this model of program design in order to follow a more dynamic, functional, full-body approach (or, conversely, a random, muscle-confusing, crossfit-y mish-mash of whatever they want to do that day). However, traditional lifting-for-hypertrophy (or muscle growth) tends toward this model.