Every one of my clients has a different story about their health. Whether a relationship with food has been bumpy, incredibly dark, or friendly and light, everyone has a health and fitness history that contributes to being ready to change their health.
Frankly, one of the reasons I became a Health Coach is because I love stories about people. Combined with my interests in healthy eating and movement, I get to use those stories to weave together actionable and sustainable health plans that are specific to individuals’ backgrounds. It is the true highlight and creative aspect of my work.
As a Health Coach, one of the first things clients and I discuss is their health and fitness story. This includes their past, and present relationships with food and fitness in addition to their mindset on their current practices and body image. Gaining these insights into my clients is vital in our work together as we goal set, problem solve, and experiment with realistic health expectations.
While chatting with a new client early last week, I realized that I have never shared my own personal health and fitness story. Since I work with clients in the three areas of food, fitness, and mindset, my story gets a bit long winded, but it is all integral to my current relationships with food, movement, and my body image.
The short version: My parents did a wonderful job of fostering healthy habits and relationships with food in my three sisters and I. In college, I ran collegiately, but ate poorly. I went through a 15 pound weight gain and a flirt with anorexia. After moving to Colorado (5 years after graduating college), I finally took an interest in fueling my body for performance and health rather than just for calories and “deserving it.” Currently, I have a solid balance of healthy eating, sustainable movement, and a usually positive body image.
The Long Version
As kids, my parents did a fantastic job of feeding my three sisters and I well-balanced, home-cooked meals eaten as a family at the table. Our dinner plates always consisted of a protein, a vegetable (usually zucchini and onions), and a starch like couscous or rice pilaf. For dessert, there was usually ice cream scooped into a mug and a little TV time.
We had breakfast before leaving for school, which was typically cereal, and we packed our own lunches with sandwiches, juice boxes, and something crunchy. In high school, I still packed my own lunch, but would end up buying a chocolate chip cookie from the cafeteria for 50 cents more often than not. Occasionally my friends and I would go off campus for lunch and spend way too much money on fancy salads and sandwiches at the gourmet shop in town.
As a tall, skinny kid and teenager, I just could not seem to stay fed. My family called me the Bottomless Pit as I was always on the hunt for more and more food. Granted, my parents did not let us have sugary cereals (only a very special treat), or tons of snacks, so my food searches usually ended up with Goldfish and orange juice at the worst. Basically, if there was food around, I was probably eating it and would often sneak snacks out of the pantry and into my room since we were not allowed to eat too close to meal times.
Since my mom has a bit of a sweet tooth, and my dad loves salty items, ice cream was usually a safe bet when we were trying to beg for a treat. My dad would come up with some odd trivia question (how many miles to the sun?) that we had to answer before we made it to the ice cream shop. If we got it right, we could have a sweet treat. If we got it wrong, he would keep driving. When traveling, we would have big breakfasts, ice cream lunches, and big dinners.
I am so fortunate that my parents gave my sisters and I such a strong foundation in food, both in what balanced meals should like and in the avoidance of snacking during the day and desserts not being a must.
In college, my idea of a healthy meal in the dining hall would be a giant salad covered in cheese and loaded with ranch dressing. I was on the cross country and track teams, so if we ran extra miles that day, I would add a big bowl of pasta topped with parmesan on the side. Add in some soft serve for dessert and a glass of Fanta if it was an extra hot day. While I did not gain a lot of weight because I was running so much, my eating habits were definitely not fueling my body for the work I was putting it through and I spent very little time thinking about the nutritional values of my meals.
I tended to feel little guilt about my food. I would have a twinge of embarrassment, or shame, about my cheese and ranch dressing amounts, but would quickly justify what I was eating by how much running I was doing.
My eating habits started to get more abnormal during the summer of my sophomore year of college. While in the midst of summer running training while at my parents’ house, I would do little experiments with myself. I would go for my morning training runs (6-7 miles), do a few laps in the pool, and then head off to work. I would try to stave off eating anything at all for as long as I could and then ultimately grab an apple around 2pm. I would not eat again until dinner. Sometimes I would avoid dinner all together by going out with friends right at meal time.
The scariest part about this summer was the pride I felt with how little I would eat in a day. It made me feel powerful somehow. Like I was in control and better than those around me who had to eat so much. I became edgy and was quick to snap at others since I thought I had a leg up on them.
This flirt with anorexia was short lived as I quickly realized that I was not interested in how starvation diets made me feel or treat others. My goal that entire summer was to make it on the varsity team, and I started to notice that my runs were suffering in speed and concentration as well as my relationships with family and friends. As soon as I started eating normally again, I took off and ended up running varsity for that season of cross country.
During my study abroad in London in the spring of my Junior year, I put on about 15-20 pounds. I was not running and was eating whatever sparked my fancy with no concept of healthy meals or cooking ability. My grocery store hauls contained pasta, frozen vegetables, blocks of cheese, baguettes, wine, and carrots. I had no idea how to cook for myself and would rather be out experiencing the new city (and its night scene) than home cooking, so I ate out at least one meal a day, if not two.
My first teaching job brought me to Arizona where I did not know anyone, or much about the state, so I spent a lot of time running and hiking solo. Shortly after I moved there, I started training for my first marathon.
For about 2-3 years, I prescribed heavily by the thought of: the more I workout, the more I deserve to eat. I would run somewhere between 8-10 miles before work and then not think twice about what I ate for the rest of the day. If it was something I mildly thought about, I would eat it.
Weekends were even worse. Throughout my weekend, I would do a Saturday long run (15-20 miles), fit in a hike or two (3-4 miles each), and spend some time with new friends. As a result of all the activity I was doing, and my mindset at this time, I would “deserve” pizza, mac n cheese, chips, ice cream, and alcohol. Just like in college, I would occasionally wrestle with that guilt factor that comes with eating unhealthier foods, but it would be short lived as I figured I would just “run off” the calories during the week.
I had no idea how to cook during those first years in Arizona. My idea of a well-cooked meal was pan fried chicken cut into bite-sized chunks topped over pasta and a few peppers and onions added in for color. Or, using my George Foreman counter grill, I would make hamburgers with pasta on the side. Another meal I thought was genius, and made constantly, was a drained can of lentil soup over pasta.
Can you sense a theme here?
Rob and I both lost weight when we moved to Vietnam (4 years after teaching in Arizona). The weight loss was not because Rob and I were eating super healthy. Rather, it was because of the anxieties I was feeling surrounding the food in Vietnam and Rob being sick for about a month. Yes, the food was good, but the lack of refrigeration and clean water or ice made for some frequent food poisoning. I ate very little in the last few months of our time there as a way to avoid feeling sick.
Colorado was where I first really started to take an interest in cooking other things besides pasta. I actually researched recipes, started reading about healthy meals, and taking a hard look at the nutritional value of how I was fueling my body. I started to spend full weekend days cooking and experimenting with recipes. My energy increased, my focus improved, and my body responded really well to the myriad of healthy nutrients I was giving it.
Colorado is also where I started becoming more interested in strength training as opposed to just running. I actually researched strength workouts, created my own, and ultimately decided to get my personal trainer certification. As I started to see a direct correlation between what I was eating, my movement, and my mindset with how I felt, I turned to Health Coaching.
While my current relationship with food does not stem from a place of disordered eating, I definitely had a disordered mindset about what my body could handle. Putting nutrient weak food into my body was only getting me body weak results and I value feeling strong, being productive, and the ability to concentrate. I have a very positive relationship with food and no longer look at food as something I “deserve”, but rather how it will make me feel my best for my life.
I do not follow a specific diet plan apart from tons of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and limited added sugars/processed foods. I focus on sustainable actions, quick and nutritious meals, and realistic expectations. Since moving to Colorado, and minus being pregnant with Zoey, this is the longest my weight has been consistent and stable without dreaming about the junk food.
What is your health and fitness story?