It is interesting how certain life events propel you down different paths in life. My journey into pursuing nutrition as a career started when I was a young, active teen who was fascinated with how diet can impact the body.
This passion for health began with a challenge to eat as many fruits and vegetables as I could each day. What started off as a personal competition, shifted as I discovered that the more I restricted and followed a set of “rules” when it came to eating, the more accomplished I felt. Type-A by nature, I accepted this challenge to “perfect” my diet and only consume “healthy” foods. The more I counted and restricted, the more in control and self-disciplined I felt.
Now don’t get me wrong. I loved learning how the body works, how each organ is such a complex system in of itself, and how variances in hormones, nutrients, blood, etc. all affect the entire body machine. It’s amazing how the type of energy we consume (carbs, protein, fat), as well as the frequency can change SO much in our systems. The love I had for chemistry, science, and food combined into a pursuit of a collegiate degree in Nutrition and Dietetics.
Coming from a small private high school and transitioning to a large state school was a little bit daunting. Soon enough, I found my group of friends (like every kid does) and loved every bit of college. With a super packed schedule (taking extra courses to graduate a year early), I kept busy with campus groups and volunteering.
To an extent I could control how well I studied and the grades I would get. I liked to wake up early, not waste time, and follow a regimented workout schedule. It all seemed fine but as I look back I realized how I was actually afraid of losing control.
I found myself feeling comfortable and accomplished when I worked out every day and limited what I ate. To miss a workout one day or eat a donut TERRIFIED me. I ate the smallest portions one could imagine and remember feeling starving in the morning after my 8 am class but going to workout to “get it over with” so I could focus on studies and friends for the rest of the day. I drank tons of water and coffee and ate vegetables and lean protein. Fat? NEVER! Sweets? NEVER …except for when I would get donuts. Looking back to my college days, I was beyond happy and loved the experience, but on the other hand I lived by a set of rules that I made for myself. I didn’t know any other way to be.
Change scared me, failing other people scared me, failing myself scared me. But one thing that I could control was what and how much I allowed into my body. It was easier to not eat than try a “new” or “unhealthy” food and feel guilty, especially at social gatherings. If I did eat a dessert, then I would feel trapped to have to burn that many calories in an hour workout afterwards.
Feeling trapped would be an understatement. One day I was so down on myself that I had eaten too much (binging is our body’s natural sense of survival), that I felt I was locked into a three-way mirror. In every direction all I could see was myself and all of my flaws. No matter what my body looked like, I always felt so far from where I wanted to be or felt I “should” be. Talk about having a distorted view of yourself! Nonetheless, this was just a part of life and knowing “too much” about the nutrient content of every food. Sure, I had self discipline (which at the time I had no idea how disordered this discipline was) but not self freedom. When we think about food all of the time or restrict it, we are always more hungry or looking to the next thing to eat. It’s part of our human instincts. If we’re in a famine state, it’s natural for our bodies to be obsessed with finding food! “Food freedom” was SUCH a foreign thought. How does someone “forget to eat”?? Blew my mind.
From feeling in control and succeeding in college, I then got matched to an internship at the University of Maryland. I was excited to be back home in Maryland but didn’t quite expect the uncontrollable stress that would follow the next year. I entered into one of the hardest seasons of my life both personally and professionally. I couldn’t handle things well so I ate my feelings away. I would try to “eat healthy” by packing protein and minimal carbs each day and then be STARVING at night after a 14-hour work day and chow down on a box of sugary cereal as I worked into the night. My body was telling me all day to EAT CARBS but I tried so hard to suppress my hunger feelings and didn’t know what “listening to your body” even meant. I was scared to do that because then I would eat the WHOLE box of donuts. And I did. On more than one occasion. I thought I was supposed to have all of the answers but completely denied the thought that I would occasionally binge eat. Not me, no, I have a degree in nutrition!
In this season I learned the influence stress and emotions can play in one’s diet. Food is meant to be enjoyed! That’s why we were created with the ability to smell and taste and enjoy delicious foods. Making myself follow a rigid eating plan robbed me of that delight and made me want to eat sweet foods even more! Learning how to cope aside from eating my feelings was a key lesson I had to learn.
Fast forward, I graduated and the next week started my first job as a clinical dietitian in a hospital working with adults and starting the neonatal nutrition program. That led to various positions in the company with more opportunities and leadership. I moved to Florida, met the man of my dreams and we just celebrated our five year anniversary!
Somewhere in between moving out on my own and getting married, I lost the desire to watch my food, be stressed about calories and gave myself permission to rest from working out. I began to accept myself for who I was and the way I was. I picked up new hobbies like road biking, rock climbing, hiking, even running (which I previously despised!).
Life is too short to be preoccupied with counting calories. Two kids later, I now am healthier than I have ever been. I hardly think of food and feel more comfortable in my skin than ever before. I naturally eat every 3-4 hours simply because I get hungry and aim to have a balanced snack. If I’m not hungry for a snack, I wait. If I am starving, then I eat what my body needs! I LOVE desserts and good wine and weekend parties with friends and family. I have come to love working out (and actually treasure that time) as it used to be a dreaded chore most days. “Food freedom” and having peace with all foods (vs. restricting) is a REAL thing!
All that to say, I am grateful for the Intuitive Eating and Mindful Eating and Anti-Diet movements that are sweeping across America. Too many people (like me!) have been caught in the restrictive cycle and unhealthy mindset when it comes to food. That is no way to live!
Yes, there are healthy and nutritious options that we can and should be fueling our bodies with but food is also meant to be enjoyed and stress free. Knowledge has impact. Learning the truth and science behind how to fuel your body well will not only empower you but also give you the tools you need to reach your health goals.