Like many female collegiate athletes, I struggled with an eating disorder for many years. Self-imposed and external expectations led me to severely restrict my caloric intake while running nearly eighty miles a week. Consequently, I graduated from college underweight, malnourished, and burdened by a whole host of health problems that revealed themselves to me over the course of a year.
Facing life without competitive running and, more importantly, life with my soon-to-be husband, I decided to step towards recovery. The most glaring issue during those first months was my lack of menstrual cycle (known as athletic amenorrhea). It had been absent for five years, which I realized, once I removed my blinders, could lead to infertility, broken bones, and osteoporosis.
For so many years, I had subsisted on a small set of foods that I deemed “healthy.”
So, I set about slowly adding more nutrient-dense foods back into my diet. For so many years, I had subsisted on a small set of foods that I deemed “healthy.” This grouping did not include any fats and very few carbs - both of which are necessary for true health. Little by little, I allowed myself to eat foods that I had shied away from. Still, though, I obsessively controlled portions, over-exercised, and chose only the healthiest of these new “unhealthy” foods (such as chickpea pasta and paleo granola). My cycle did not return.
Frustrated with the losing battle, but still afraid to fully dive into recovery, I sought guidance from experts and those who had been through such trials themselves. Robyn Nohling (aka “The Real Life RD”), Lex Daddio of “Restoring Radiance,” and Kayla Rose Markey of “Damn the Diets” were wonderful resources that helped launch me into the next phase of recovery: total surrender.
To completely break myself from all the bad habits, restrictions, and negative thoughts, I had to let go of every bit of control and allow my body to tell me what it needed.
To completely break myself from all the bad habits, restrictions, and negative thoughts, I had to let go of every bit of control and allow my body to tell me what it needed. And what it needed was complete rest from intense physical activity for over two weeks and the freedom to eat all of the foods that had been off-limits for a quarter of my life. Allowing myself to do this was terrifying, but it also brought waves upon waves of relief and release.
Trials and Triumphs
Over the course of a couple of months, my body decided that it was ready to begin functioning again. I celebrated my first menstrual cycle since my junior year of high school. Unfortunately, though, that wasn’t the finish line. I had to deal with the insecurities surrounding rebound weight gain, which occurs after a lengthy period of calorie restriction. I faced continual challenges trying to conceive. And I had to figure out how to strike an honest, healthy balance with both food and exercise.
Though I still struggled with my different body, the gift of life within me began to banish my self-criticism and insecurity.
Even though my cycle had returned, I discovered - after many rounds of blood work - that my thyroid was not properly functioning. I still was not getting enough healthy fats in my diet, I was Vitamin D deficient, and I still had too many stressors in my life. With a shift in my diet (hello coconut oil, avocados, and walnuts), a Vitamin D supplement, and more sleep and saying “no” to things, I managed to bring my thyroid hormone levels to a normal range. This, coupled with a switch from running and HIIT workouts to low-impact barre, enabled me to regain my fertility and get pregnant! Though I still struggled with my different body, the gift of life within me began to banish my self-criticism and insecurity.
Finding the Balance
My physical health had drastically improved and, with it, I began to find that sweet middle ground with food and exercise. After years of feeling controlled by my diet and need to maintain peak (and unsustainable) physical fitness, I have found great joy in exercising for twenty to forty minutes four to five times a week in a variety of different ways - everything from barre to cycling to hiking with my husband. I no longer allow my workouts to determine my daily or weekly schedule, but rather fit exercise in where life allows. I have discovered that my body feels best when I eat a healthy, well-balanced diet that does not exclude any foods. I naturally tend towards unprocessed whole foods, but I don’t count calories or restrict my intake in any way. And if I’m really feeling ice cream, I eat ice cream.
I was tired of extremes and just wanted to find a place where fitness and nutrition did not dictate my life, but rather enabled me to lead a happy and wholesome one.
Social media and today’s culture make it difficult to determine where true health actually lies. Some blogs and Instagram accounts promote strict clean eating, encouraging you to avoid all sweets, swap your pasta for zucchini noodles, and fit in at least sixty minutes of cardio six days a week. Others will tell you to ditch exercise if you just absolutely don’t enjoy it, eat cake for breakfast, and accept being overweight in the name of self-love. I was tired of extremes and just wanted to find a place where fitness and nutrition did not dictate my life, but rather enabled me to lead a happy and wholesome one.
No one has it all figured out, and I will be on this journey to find balance for a long, long time. But, balance is possible - even after years of an extreme. Ultimately, through these years of struggle and overcoming, I have learned that life should never be centered on your physical being - what you look like, how fast you can run, or how “perfect” your diet is. When the truly important things take center stage in life, health simply becomes a small aspect of your beautiful, joyful, meaningful existence. When life itself triumphs over your desire for control, balance and peace are found.