Throughout my life I have used exercise as a coping mechanism for pain. My involvement with the armed forces taught me that pain was weakness leaving the body, so I would replace emotional pain with the physical pain of exercise and grow stronger. In my opinion, it seemed a win-win situation; exercise is a mindful activity, so it kept me focussed on the present moment and stopped my mind wandering back to whatever was hurting me. Simultaneously, it make me physically stronger and fitter, so I would look and feel better. It never occurred to me that this reliance on exercise could become dangerous.
In late 2014, something happened to me that was painful and beyond my control.
In January 2015, my exercise coping mechanism kicked in, full throttle. I started with a few runs along the sea front, and soon expanded to circuit training classes, fitness videos with Fitness Blender and the purchase of power-block dumbbells. I had never been out of shape, but I could see that I was even more in shape as a result of this, and I felt back in control of my own body again. I had bought a fitbit, and loved logging my exercise alongside my steps and seeing how many calories I had burned.
Once I started to see the results, exercise became a compelling part of my daily life. I had decided that I wanted to lose a few lbs (I didn’t need to lose any) and I thought that the best way to do this was to marry my exercise regime with a nutrition plan. I had always eaten fairly healthily, but I wanted to step it up a notch. Here follows the trends I explored:
Sugar-free Clean Eating:
Put simply, I scoured the web for the healthiest recipes. I gave up sugar, including high sugar fruit. I gave up dairy and gluten. I would spend hours looking for recipes and think of nothing but food. Everyday a new food was banned from my life. This clean eating, low sugar regime, soon lead me to discover ketosis.
In short, this involves keeping carbs below 50g daily. For those of you unfamiliar with carb counting, an apple is around 12g of carbs. In order to cope with such low carbs, you up the fat you eat. Your body then goes into ketosis and burns fat as enegry, helping you lose weight. Goodbye pasta and bread… Hello bacon, brie, eggs, nut butter, avocado….
Well, whilst the numerous stories from the successful ‘ketosees’ seemed to suggest that this was the way forward, I can safely say that this wasn’t the diet for me. I found myself murmuring ‘satiate yourself with fat’ as I battled with hunger all day. I would carefully log my macros and be devastated to go over 50g of carbs. One day, when I was particularly low, I thought I would treat myself to a chocolate. Within 5 minutes I had binged on the entire box of quality street. I was close to tears. I wanted to be sick. Instead, I exercised.
Carb Cycling – IIFYM:
After some more research, I abandoned ketosis. Instead I switched to a regime where I would only eat carbs on the days I worked out. I had given up trying to lose any weight by now and instead was entirely focussed on building muscle. I would eat around 2600 calories on days when I worked out, and 1400 when I rested. Protein macros stayed stable, whilst I would eat more fat on rest days and try to keep fat below 40g on work out days, making up the rest with carbs. Every meal was meticulously planned and weighed. Dinner out was incredibly stressful. I would need to see the menu beforehand, plan what I would eat and fit it into my macros. If someone else cooked, I would hover over them and try to work out how much of each ingredient was going into a meal, so I could work out my macros. I used my fitbit account to track my macros alongside my exercise.
I started to abandon the clean eating, favouring sugary malt loaf over high fat avocado on work out days to fir my macros. Once a week I would cheat and this soon became a binge day. I did 1000 calorie work outs, took caffeine pills, probiotics and iBCAAs on cheat days to stoke up my metabolism, so I could devour entire packets of doughnuts. Before all this began, I hardly had a sweet tooth. Suddenly, I was craving sweet treats constantly. On one cheat day, my mother saw me demolish a packet of liquorice allsorts and accused me of bulimia. I knew what it looked like, but I was convinced everyone just wanted me to stop because they were jealous of the body I was building. I would never skip a workout. If I had to get up early or stay up late, so be it. No excuses. Even on rest days I still did yoga.
Lean Gains – Intermittent fasting:
Closely linked to the carb-cycling was the lean gains protocol of fasting. I would stop eating at 9pm and nothing could persuade me to eat again until after 11am the next day. On the days when i was eating 2600 calories, I would struggle to force all the food down, but the idea of eating past 9pm or losing muscle was worse than the feeling of being stuffed, so I just did it. On my rest days I had to space the 1400 calories out carefully or I would be very hungry. Hunger became a smug feeling of superiority as I overcame it, and I watched others eat whatever they wanted with fascination and disgust.
This was me around this time:
Then I hurt my back. Badly.
Without work outs and rest days, I could no longer determine what macros to follow. I was lost. I started desperately researching different macros and tried to explore low impact exercise I could do to keep in shape while I recovered. I kept intermittent fasting, but gone were the circuits, HIIT, plyometrics and weights. Instead, I did pilates, stationary cycling and used a cross trainer. It seemed so boring compared to the previous work outs. I struggled to stick with it. Terrified of losing muscle and gaining fat, I hid my scales.
Whilst I had been following this strict regime, a social life was hard to maintain. As I mentioned, going out for dinner or to other people’s houses was stressful as I couldn’t control when and what I ate. I needed to be able to track my macros all day, and life got in the way of that. I was working full time as a teacher, but everything else fell to the wayside. My room was a mess. I went on dates, but never liked anyone for very long, and despised anyone who tried to get me to eat outside of 11am – 9pm, or who wanted to go out to eat when I wasn’t on a cheat day. I didn’t have time for a relationship, and no-one was going to get in the way of my perfect body.
Then I met my current partner. At the beginning of our relationship, I stayed with him for three days, and handed over all control of food. I was unable to exercise due to my back, so I told myself to relax and get back to the macros etc. once I was better.
I ate potato wedges for breakfast. That’s right, no 30g of protein there, just pure, processed carbs. And I survived.
At the end of August, my best friend invited me on a last minute trip to Italy. She had previously struggled with anorexia and I was charged with making sure she ate. She was charged with making sure I didn’t overexercise. I took Amazing Grass’ Amazing meal away with me, and after a big breakfast at the hotel, I had a shake for lunch and whatever I wanted for dinner. We swum and ate. And ate. We ate pizza, we ate pasta, we ate gelato. It was glorious and freeing. I was happy.
In September, I returned to work and started a new fitness regime to get me back on track. Fitness Blender’s 8 week programme for busy people. I worked out for 30mins 5 days a week and had weekends off to spend with my partner. I ate very healthily during the week, plenty of protein and veg, but no more weighing food and no macros. Kelly and Daniel’s advice felt right, no carb-cutting, just healthy eating. With no more cheat days I just had a biscuit if I felt like it -no more binging. At the weekends I occasionally had take-aways and my partner would bring me little treats and chocolate. I continued to stick to intermittent fasting, but wouldn’t get too upset if I had to eat at the wrong time.
I am not going to pretend that this was easy. I would freak out about food and still needed to exercise to feel good. My partner’s patience here was so important in getting me through. Looking back now, I know that I was battling a curious blend of orthoroexia and bulimia. I have learned that eating disorders come in many forms and can sneak up on you.
Now, we have moved in together and I have a new job at a boarding school. I am just about fitting in 3 fitness blender workouts a week with my busy schedule, but it’s not the end of the world if I just manage 2. I continue to supplement with protein shakes after a work out to make sure I get enough protein. I have just stopped intermittent fasting because my meals at school, including breakfast, are provided at set times. I have eggs or yoghurt for breakfast, alongside a green smoothie (kale/spinach, maca, flaxseed, fruit, gelatin… etc) plenty from the salad bar at lunch, and dinner is usually a Lean in 15 recipe cooked at home with my partner.I eat cake when I want it, and there is plenty here at school! Last night I went out for curry with the other staff, and drunk 2 pints of beer. Tonight we are out for dinner with a friend again and there will be no pre-planning, no sweaty palms or panic.
Here are the key things I have learned from my experience:
- Healthy does not always mean getting up at 5am to fit in your work-out. I learned the hard way that sleep is just as important and sacrificing it to work out will just cause burn out.
- You can eat cake and be ok.
- Food should be enjoyed and shared with people you love, not measured out, restricted and forced down. Food is not the enemy.
- Just because something works for someone else doesn’t mean it will work for you. If it’s not making you happy, stop.
- All bodies are different and this should be embraced.
- Exercise should be enjoyable, if it’s not, explore a different way to be active.
- Supplements are just that, and shouldn’t be a permanent replacement to real food.
- The media lies to you about what bodies should look like.
- Big corporations make money from your insecurities.
- Nobody looks perfect all the time, even the ones in the magazines.
After over a year of exploring the health and fitness industry, I can wholeheartedly recommend:
- Fitness Blender – workouts and meal plans
- Bad Yogi – yoga and attitude to life
- The Protein Works – clean protein
- Joe Wicks (The Bodycoach) Lean in 15 – balanced recipes and realistic workouts
- Precision Nutrition – realistic advice on health and fitness