Let me just be honest for a moment and say that I have never been overweight.
I do not know what it’s like to be every size. In fact, I have really only ever been two sizes: pregnant and not pregnant.
Yes, part of it is genetics, but genetics is not our destiny-it can be swayed in either direction by the food that we eat, when and how we move our bodies, sleep, and how we manage stress. These things may not change your body type, but they can certainly change our body composition. So when people label me as “lucky,” I am quick to remind them that I’ve also enjoyed a lifetime of healthy eating and exercise habits.
That being said, I have certainly not always felt my best. As I approached my mid-late thirties, I began a downward spiral in my physical and mental health. As an athlete and marathon runner my entire adult life it was scary, and I had no idea what to do about it.
But not to worry, as I runner I knew from experience that running cures everything. If I was feeling sluggish, run to gain energy. If I was feeling anxious, run until it dissipates-sometimes ten miles or more. If I had insomnia, why not just get up and run? Feeling sad? Nothing that a quick run with a friend can’t fix. Runner’s high is a real thing-it’s euphoric, rewarding, and extremely addictive.
Over time, though, I was increasingly unable to “outrun” these issues. I suffered from debilitating migraines several times per week, and I was irritable to the point of tears some days. When I was in the shower, I would run my fingers through my wet hair and then feel it come out in my hands in clumps. My clothes were snug (frustrating considering how much running I was doing), I was exhausted, and I was sleeping poorly. I was not the kind of wife, mother, or woman I wanted to be. Instead, I was the snapping-at-my-kids, coffee-until-wine, napping-like-my-three year-old kind.
Was this just getting older? Was my body starting to break down? I mean dear God I wasn’t even 40 yet! What would my body function like 10 years from now when I was 48? I couldn’t help but lay there in the middle of the night ( remember I wasn’t sleeping) and conjure up an image in my head: medications lined up along the bathroom counter, the little orange bottles with the white, childproof caps with names on the front I could not pronounce, filled with all the things to suppress my slew of symptoms: sleep aids, mood stabilizers, supplements, pain relievers, diuretics. Yikes. The future was not, as they say, looking bright.
Meanwhile, my husband, now 40, was struggling with weight gain for the first time ever. We decided that giving up carbohydrates was obviously the answer. The more I read (on Instagram) about carbs, the more I demonized them. Obviously all that horrible sugar that has built up in my system was the cause of all of our problems. So, we had a small mourning period over our potatoes and then got rid of all the bread and grains, starchy vegetables and even fruits in our diet, which lasted about 48 hours until one of our four children threw an epic tantrum over an unacceptable plate color and, as if by reflex, I poured a nice, cold glass of sauvignon blanc from the fridge. Carbs. Damn. This was not going to work for me.
When your body is breaking down and you’ve done everything you know how to fix it, it’s really actually frightening. Food became the enemy. It was the cause of everything I hated about my life, and one of the few things left that I had any control over. When I went to my neurologist, she only told me what NOT to eat: gluten, dairy, alcohol. When I went to my GI doctor, he told me to stop eating highly acidic foods, quit eating late at night, and take these pills every day for, presumably, forever? No one-not my doctors, not my friends, not my husband-ever asked me what I was eating in the first place. And if I was being honest, it wasn’t much. A handful of goldfish here, a half of a peanut butter and jelly there, and a salad thrown in for good measure. Food meant nothing to me except a barrier to my goals. I was just simply someone who ate to live-which is ironic, because, like many Americans, what I ate (or, in this case, didn’t eat) was actually killing me. I was miserable and hangry, but I honestly didn’t really care-I was willing to do whatever it took to get back to my 20-something, slimmer, happier self.
Odd, really, because as a speech-language pathologist I had worked with many patients who were forced to give up their right to eat due to swallowing difficulties after a stroke or progressing dementia. I saw their sadness, their loss of purpose. They looked forward to their meals, and sometimes it’s all they had to look forward to. It was sad. Eating is emotional-we attach memories to food, we attach people to food, we attach feelings to food.
It wasn’t until I started educating myself about nutrition that I really understood the extent to which I was undereating and realized that food was not the enemy, food was more like a good doctor. It was medicine. Food is life, it is fuel. It naturally stabilizes our mood, feeds our brains, builds lean muscle, gives us energy, and provides us with the essential vitamins and minerals to keep us free from disease. So why, then, are all of us trying to eat less of it? Why do we wander down the gluten-free aisle of the grocery store in desperation, buying every kind of low calorie fake food we can find? Why do WE, as women, mothers, employees, business owners, partners, PTO volunteers, soccer coaches, Sunday school teachers-in other words, the ones who need the most energy-seem to eat the least of anyone?
Suddenly I felt like the Julia Roberts character in Runaway Bride-after fleeing from yet another marriage, she decides to finally get to know herself without the influence of her many failed relationships. She starts by trying eggs in every imaginable way, since she had previously adopted the egg preferences of her various suitors. How DO I like my eggs? I really didn’t know.
Not only had I never enjoyed food, I had never even really tasted food. And listen-when you really start to pay attention to your food instead of just tolerating it, it is actually a completely different experience. When you actually sit and eat instead of eating in front of your computer or on your phone, when you get rid of food that you’ve been buying because it’s trendy even though you don’t like it (do people really like quinoa?), when you invite a friend over for lunch, make a smoothie with your five-year-old, or sit with a cup of coffee and really enjoy it, it really is different. You start to sense your own body’s natural cues. Am I hungry? Or am I just bored, lonely, or anxious? Was my exhaustion due to overextending myself? Or was I simply short on protein?
Of course, in keeping with my overachieving tendencies, I couldn’t just learn about nutrition-I had to become an expert in it, and then later make a career out of it. I delved into science. I took the courses. I learned about macronutrients and micronutrients. I researched carbohydrates, dabbled in intermittent fasting, and began to learn about the benefits of strength training. I did all of this-not just to help myself, but to help others who are like I was: depleted, depressed, and afraid for my future.
These days, I spend much of my time giving my clients permission to eat, and eat a lot. I ask them to think of the perimeter of their grocery store as their pharmacy-no prescription required. I ensure they are eating the minimum amount of whole food nutrition (defined as a food that has only one ingredient) to function at their optimal level and allow their bodies to heal from years of dieting and eating processed foods. In time, they are able to switch their thinking and ultimately their relationship with food. They are able to eat at fancy restaurants, attend social events, go on vacations even, without the underlying guilt and shame that often accompanies them, resulting in TRUE food freedom.