a variation on an eating disorder

*Spawned from #5 in my previous post*

Regarding exercise and healthy eating, I’ve essentially undergone a paradigm shift several years in the making. Growing up, I NEVER thought about exercising and eating healthy. I even remember telling my sister once that I would never work out. Too boring. I was blessed with a high metabolism and a mother who didn’t serve us junk food. Then, in my sophomore year of college (’06-’07), I gained around 13 lbs in one year, presumably as a result of a combination of causes: birth control pills, natural metabolic changes, depression, and overeating unhealthy food at the dining hall buffet, to name a few. 

I didn’t even realize I had gained any weight until I went on a trip to Argentina in March 2007 and saw how round I looked in the pictures. At that point in time, my focus wasn’t on my health; it was always on my appearance. Even though I was dissatisfied, I didn’t blame myself for the gain. I was never a super-active kid so it didn’t make sense to me that my lack of exercise would be responsible. I didn’t want to believe that whereas before I could maintain my weight without exercise, now I couldn’t. I also didn’t realize that I really was eating too much at those meals. I mostly just blamed the birth control pills and a je ne sais quoi. I still conceived of the gym as a place of boredom, and as exercise was uncorrelated to the weight gain, why put myself through that, just to see if I would lose some of the weight? I could just wait it out.

I wasn’t willing to make any changes myself because 1. I didn’t know if they would even make a difference, and 2. they would constitute an entire lifestyle, philosophical overhaul I was psychologically unprepared to make.

As luck would have it, in a few short months I studied abroad in Ghana and lost 8 lbs in 4 months, probably because I ate so little there. However, not having changed any of my behaviors in the long-run, I invariably gained back 5 pounds when I came back to the U.S. in 2008.*

No longer on birth control pills, I could blame no one but myself. The weight was here to stay and I couldn’t just will it away. For the longest time I resented my new predicament. I thought I had the right to eat what I wanted, when I wanted, and it wasn’t fair that I had to make dietary sacrifices and other people didn’t. Whatever happened to my golden metabolic years?

I began to harbor unhealthy attitudes towards food. There must be a secret or shortcut to eating healthy. I became obsessed with how much protein I had eaten that day (never enough) vs. carbs (always too much) vs. fats (about right)–they’re supposed to be a 40-40-20 ratio. I bought books about diet/nutrition and would use websites to calculate my caloric and nutritional intake. I made unrealistic goals about how (in)often to eat dessert that only made me feel extremely guilty when I didn’t uphold them. I withheld from eating foods I loved, only making me overeat them when I finally caved…food was constantly on my mind. I felt a non-stop anxiety about food in addition to the resentment: why haven’t other people had to change their eating habits?

I don’t remember how often I began to work out at this point. My best guess is that it began only once a week, maybe increased to 3 times, and then would undergo month-long breaks. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it felt like a chore. Once again, why did I have to go to the gym when no one else did?

My resentment was what really held be back from succeeding. A part of me didn’t think I should have to make changes, and that I was entitled to a life free from forced exercise and dietary inhibition.

The reason I was engaging in such unhealthy practices was that my motivation was not my health, it was my figure. Ok, so I was never FAT, but I felt fat and didn’t like the way my body looked. At this point in time I wanted to be a Hollywood actress and my standard of beauty was higher than the average American’s. That was another anxiety floating above me: the near-impossible pursuit of a career in acting. My weight was the one thing about it I could actually control, and even so I wasn’t impeccably toned! How the hell was I ever going to make it?

As I did start to like my body again, my food neurosis calmed down. Instead of hating myself for eating the tiramisu or for denying myself the tiramisu, I thought: “This is not the last opportunity I’ll have to eat tiramisu, and I can always eat it next time.” I found a way to free my thoughts from food, which inherently made me eat more healthily. I strongly believe that half of healthy eating is believing you’re eating healthily and having a positive attitude towards it.*

In February of 2009, I decided I didn’t want to be a professional actor and I felt an immediate relief surrounding exercise. Now, I would just exercise for me, not for the industry. Over the course of my senior year (’08-’09), finally accepting that it wasn’t an injustice that my metabolism changed, I began to be motivated by my health instead of my vanity. 

My time in Spain (’09-’10) played the biggest role in teaching me how to keep a healthy diet; it was like pressing a reset button. Growing up in the U.S., I had accumulated false conceptions about the sizes of portions and, psychologically, I was a slave to our American eating times. Experiencing another culture’s food habits served to loosen my own, as I saw first-hand that our attitudes toward food are not innate or “right.” If it was approaching lunchtime, my immediate thought no longer was, “I guess I should be eating soon and lunch should contain x-amount of food like the lunch you get at a restaurant.” Instead, I cater more to what my body is telling me, and being hungry for an hour or two while I finish something up doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore. It’s strange, but I used to have a big fear of being hungry. 

Now, in May of 2011, I think I finally get it. We didn’t evolve to be sedentary; it only makes sense that our bodies require exercise (as opposed to it being an unfair burden). Understanding that my body craves sugar and fats because of their scarcity in the not-so-distant past helps me to combat those cravings now. Just because they’re ubiquitous doesn’t mean I’m entitled to them.*

Taking care of your health through diet and exercise helps reduce the chances of almost every disease, keeps your mind sharper longer, and gives you more energy and self-esteem. I see my physical health as the heart, extending outwards and fortifying every other component of my life. Mens sana in corpore sano.

I’ve been slowly building towards fully incorporating these beliefs into my practice. I enjoy exercising now: I like the way my body looks and it makes me feel good that I’m doing something so good for myself. Once a week I work out at this place that really works for me (www.definebody.com), I’m trying to do yoga once a week, and I also work out at the JCC.*

I usually don’t indulge myself when I want a cookie late at night (why would I think I’m entitled to?), and I recently cut back on sugar after reading this article. (This last one is by far the most challenging; I love my sweets).

I’ve come a long way in the past 6 years and feel good about where I am and where I still have to go. Off to my yoga class!

*Here are a few critical pieces of advice:

  1. Your fitness-gauge should be your happiness with your body, not your weight. Everyone can always be more fit but it’s unrealistic to beat yourself up over it. Try to maintain an acceptable deviation from your ideal and take pride in your hard work to do so.
  2. Don’t count calories, etc. Just err on the side of eating more healthy than non-healthy and don’t overwhelm yourself with the perfect balance.
  3. You don’t deserve those cookies or those chips. Maybe you do if you haven’t had any in a long time and you’ve just had a great success or a horrible day. But don’t feel entitled to bad eating (no one is, even the skinniest of us all).
  4. Different exercises will challenge you in different ways. Don’t avoid one type because it’s “not enough cardio” or, on the other hand, is “too much cardio.” Choose exercises you enjoy, and vary them so that you don’t get bored.

1 Comment

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One response to “a variation on an eating disorder

  1. Great post about something I think we all can relate to! I know I struggle with food all the time. Sweets especially. I like your idea to just tell yourself that you can always eat that tiramisu next time… I’m going to try that from now on!

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