Let me start with something in your face.
You probably won’t like this, but unfortunately, this is the truth:
There is no quick fix. There is no way to cheat the system (at least not long term), and the word balance, is just setting us up for all kinds of failures.
So why would I use that word in the title? If I don’t believe there is such a thing as balance, why use it?
Because unfortunately, those are the words we understand, the words that make sense to us.
I am hoping I can explain it better, and hopefully change your approach towards food. The title I chose for this post was the exact request I received from a listener in a survey I did last year to find out what you wanted me to cover.
If you know anything about my history with amenorrhea, or more accurately RED-S, you will know that food and I had a pretty complicated relationship, and it is only since I stopped running to get my health back from medical malnutrition, that I have found a peace with food. There is an ongoing discussion as to whether we ever truly recover from an eating disorder, or if we just move along a spectrum of a healthy to unhealthy relationship. As of right now though, I am very happy with where I am at.
The only downside is because I am not thinking about food ALL THE TIME, I do not get as excited for meals as I used to.
And friends, to be totally honest with you, a tiny part of me misses that food has become something I need to do, rather than what I want to do. It is just food to me now, which is overall good, but has lost a lot of the excitement, especially when it comes to cooking. I am in a definite slump in motivation to cook. I do it, but in a very boring way. Before I loved to cook.
That my friends, is the ONLY downside I have in the place I have found myself in now. And my episode with Dr Jennifer Gaudiani brought to light that actually, most of us have a complicated relationship with food at some point in our lives, and not just when you are struggling with an eating disorder. I strongly recommend you give that one a listen after you finish with this.
Before I go any further, I do want to state that I am not a registered dietitian. I am not an expert in this topic, and I do not claim to be a nutritionist. I am just sharing my experiences and thoughts. If you do find what I talk about today resonates with you, I strongly recommend you find yourself a registered dietitian to work with, at least initially.
I will say that one more time for the people in the back, find a registered dietitian. There are many people online and in person who are “nutritionists”, but only a registered dietitian has done a full college degree on dietetics, passed a national examination and completed an ACEND-accredited supervised practice program. THOSE are the people you want to see. I will share some podcast episodes later with registered dietitians that I think you should listen to, especially if you are not at a place you think you can afford to see someone in person.
To show you how I found peace, I think it is important to look back on where I was, to see if you recognize any of these behaviors or thought patterns within your own life, then it is time to start to think about the work you can do within yourself to be able to find a place of peace.
Because here is the thing, it DOES exist. YOU can find a place where you are not thinking about food all the time, where you are comfortable (and yes, even proud) in your own skin, where you are not always thinking about being better. It really can be possible for you too.
Don’t worry, Tina of five years ago would have rolled her eyes at me too. I KNOW it doesn’t seem real, and when people say that to you, you think they are lying, how could you NOT be thinking about your next meal?
Especially if it is going to be SO good….or at least you think so. I often found that when I built food up in my head, how amazing it was going to be…it was never quite as good as I imagined.
Food is just that, food. Fuel to keep us alive. And yes, I fully appreciate the experience aspect of eating, I love to eat out with friends and have meals cooked by people who are good at what they do.
But when it becomes something you enjoy, part of life, rather than most of life, it just brings a sense of satisfaction that is so rewarding.
As you can tell though, I wasn’t always there. This is what Tina of five years ago had thoughts like on a daily basis:
Are you serious? Hungry again? I JUST ate! You can wait a few more hours, because I gave you food, so this must be an illusion. Oh yeah, don’t people say they eat when they are bored? Maybe I am just bored.
Okay, so tonight I am going out for dinner. I know we are going to eat a lot, because Amy probably wants to order an appetizer, and I will need dessert, so I had better be careful today. I’ll have an apple, some sweet potato chunks, carrots, and a rice cracker with peanut butter for lunch. All good things, and yeah, getting all the food groups, so that means today won’t be a wash for my nutrition.
Ah how do I get out of this. I already had two cookies at lunch, and now Jane is offering me a slice of her birthday cake! This is too many sweets in one day!
Ugh I ate so much last night, way more than I expected to, why can’t I resist those damn tortilla chips? I need to make sure today is clean to make up for it.
I had a massive lunch, so that means I probably won’t need to eat much the rest of the day, I’ll just have a salad for dinner.
I just put my fork down, and they seem to be interested in just chatting for a while. I wonder how long it will be till dessert? What if they don’t have any sweets to have!? Is it too soon to ask about dessert? I NEED my sugar fix.
I hate coffee shop meetups, which drink has the least amount of calories? I don’t want to waste my calories for the day in a stupid drink. Hmm, maybe I’ll get a peppermint tea.
Hmmm which item on this menu can I get that doesn’t have so low calories that everyone judges me, but isn’t going to make me put on weight?
This restaurant doesn’t have a menu online!? How am I meant to decide which thing to get? How am I meant to plan out the rest of the day?
Ah I am so hungry, but I am going out to eat in two hours, so body, you can have some carrots, shut up, and wait.
All of those are things that used to run through my mind.
You may be thinking, “well it is good to balance out junk food with healthy stuff”, and yes, to an extent it is, BUT the problem is not what I was eating, the choices I was making in themselves, the problem was that I was letting my head decide these things, rather than my body or heart. I wasn’t going for the foods I actually wanted, because I was worried they were too many calories, and if I did go for those foods, the pre or post meal guilt would make me decide what I was allowed to have the rest of that day regardless of what my body wanted or needed.
If we do have a big meal, yes, often we are not hungry for our next meal, and I think we have all had the experience of going out to lunch, and then going out to dinner as well, but arriving still not feeling very hungry, but knowing that you will be judged if you do not eat or barely eat. But that is different (and tough in its own way).
What is not right, is when we finish one meal and decide what our body gets the rest of the day, without actually, you know, consulting our bodies!
It may seem like that is just life nowadays, there are too many temptations everywhere, it is just a part of life to plan your food out, otherwise you will lose control and your weight will spiral, but it doesn’t have to be that way!
Yes, even if you do have a packed social calendar.
Remember that there is a whole industry out there created to put you in FEAR. To make you think that you cannot look after your own eating, that you need to be skinnier, more toned, lean, chiseled. It is a billion dollar industry, and as much as we may think we are strong enough to resist the marketing, it is STRONG, and we are all affected by it more than we realize.
Be sure to pop your email in below, and I will email you the best podcast episodes I have covered on nutrition (and there have been a lot!). Many of these have literally changed lives forever. They are powerful, and if nutrition is something you want to learn more about or free yourself from this obsessive food life, you will get a lot out of these.
For years I fought aggressively to show that there was nothing wrong with my diet, that a lack of calories could not possibly be what was causing my lack of period. But again, back to the nutritionist point again. I spoke to many experts and people who had some education in nutrition who gave me the all clear, but there is a MASSIVE difference between those people and a registered dietitian.
It was only once I worked with Nancy Clark that I realized I had been wrong all this time. For me, it wasn’t even really that big of a change. After I had my daughter Bailey, and my body recovered, my periods were back. I really wasn’t consuming that many more calories than I was in the past. In many cases it is not a huge change that is needed in the long term, but sometimes we may have to overshoot a little to give our bodies confidence that we are safe.
Now, I can go to all the social events I like, without having to worry about losing control or eating too much. Without having to restrict in anticipation or make up for overdoing it the night before. Once you free yourself of those thoughts, you find you can stop easier and you reach a place where you don’t need to be so controlling.
But what about performance? I need to eat a healthy diet to run my best
Yes, that is true.
If you are training for a big race or have an event in mind that you really want to give your very best to, a race you want to look back on knowing you did everything you could, what then?
Well, eating healthy is important, but more than eating healthy, trying to make sure you are getting the right foods IN is most important. It is not about what you cut out of your diet, not about the things you are removing, because the more of those there are, the more you will start to get obsessed and it will soon take over your life.
I remember going to visit a very special family friend in Indiana who I had known since I was two years old. She took me out to this place that was incredibly special to her, somewhere that had been a favorite place to visit with her late husband. Still grieving, she wanted me to go with her to visit it. They had a buffet there, all you can eat. Part of me used to love buffets, I could try as many foods as I liked, but then another part of me was terrified. All I could see was fried chicken, green beans dripping in oil, and “salads” that were iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and cheese.
That day meant so much to my friend, but I was so panicked about the food, about putting those foods into my body, that I didn’t appreciate it at all, I just wanted to get back home, where I could control my food, where I could make up for the meal I had just eaten with extra healthy foods.
Once you notice things like that are happening, that social occasions are ruined by your fear of not eating healthy, you have gone too far.
Even in the heaviest of training, when you are really trying to hone in on your nutrition, it is not a big deal to have a fried chicken and fries meal, to eat an entire pizza to yourself, or a big slice of your daughters birthday cake. As Nancy Clark told me, there are NO bad foods, zero.
It doesn’t mean you eat those foods for every meal. If we did that, we would be seriously lacking in many vitamins and minerals (as well as other areas), that would eventually impact everything, especially our running, BUT you can have some things each and every day that you do enjoy.
Maybe that comes in the form of a blue cheese dressing on your salad.
Maybe that comes in the form of a burger with fries.
Or my personal favorite, the form of a double scoop of ice cream in a waffle cone.
But here is the thing:
If you notice that you are having those foods, but restricting around everything else because you feel guilty about that or you feel you have to be extra careful, THAT is where you are getting yourself in dangerous territory. I used to have a MASSIVE sweet treat every night, and a big part of that was how I convinced people that there was nothing to see here, that I didnt have an eating disorder.
Surely she wouldn’t be able to eat an entire shareable brownie to herself?
The truth is, it is hard to find the line between eating healthy enough to fuel your training and eating enough overall. As you consume more healthy foods, you do find yourself enjoying them more, craving them even. Which is good, and we want to add as much of that into our diet as possible. However, it is the mental side of things that can give the biggest indicator of whether you have gone too far.
Put yourself in the situation I mentioned above, with the buffet. Would you have eaten that meal, seen it for what it was, calories that your body will use to fuel itself, maybe not your favorite foods, but an important day for someone else, so you let it go and move on?
Or would you, like me? Be in a panic, thinking of all the terrible things you just put into your body, feeling sick that you “poisoned yourself” with those foods?
Only you know your answer there.
I wish I could give you a sample nutrition plan to follow or specific advice on what to eat, but friends, unfortunately there is no such thing as a best diet. The best diet for you is different to the best diet for me and the best diet for anyone else you know.
We all have metabolisms that are working at different rates, and a lot of that comes down to how we have treated our bodies. As Dr Gaudiani says, if we are constantly starving our bodies by restricting calories, our metabolisms WILL slow down, because our body thinks it is going to starve, and will try to protect us.
If our metabolism slows down, it will shut down some systems (like reproductive and circulation to your fingers and toes) that it deems less important, and therefore you will require less calories to survive.
The only advice I can really give you is to follow where your mind is at. If a lot of the things I have spoken about today are resonating with you, listen to the podcast with Dr Gaudiani, she is the expert here, and the one who can explain it best.
Myths of eating disorders
Eating disorders DO NOT have a “look”.
We may have an image in our minds of what we think an eating disorder looks like, usually someone with anorexia nervosa, but the reality is, anorexia is just one branch of an eating disorder, as is bulimia and binge eating disorder. Though anorexia tends to affect young, white women, eating disorders can affect anyone and everyone.
I always told myself. I was not “skinny enough”. Other girls were thinner than me, I was the bigger one, I didn’t “look” rail thin. Eating disorders come in every weight, yes really. It is one of the biggest barriers to seeking help and accepting you have a problem, but the sooner we as a society can understand that weight is not an indicator, the sooner we will really tackle this.
Just because someone is overweight, does not mean it is because they are eating too much, or it does not mean they are bingeing at night when no one is watching. I am ashamed to say that I did used to see things that way, that our weight was in our control, and a matter or willpower. But that is not true. Again, in that episode with Dr Gaudiani, she talks a lot about how we can spiral out of control, not losing weight, but eating dangerously low calories, because our metabolism has slowed so much.
Another myth, thinking, “If I had an eating disorder, I wouldn’t be able to eat these bad/junk foods”.
I already told you that there are no bad foods, but this myth is one we often use to ignore the issue at hand, because even when I was at my worst point with my struggles, I still ate a TON of sweets and sugar and would have MASSIVE meals for dinner.
I just was restricting everything else throughout my day, so I had “saved” my calories up. Still an eating disorder, I was just able to deceive myself and others by demonstrating how much I could eat.
This one is a BIG one:
A “sweet tooth” is not necessarily what it seems. For years, I was so addicted to sugar, I HAD to have dessert, even if it meant walking to a store half mile from where I was at 9pm. Really, that wasn’t a sweet tooth craving, it was my body screaming at me for more calories. Sugar is the quickest way for your body to get calories in, so it craves those constantly because it wants you to take in more.
Yes, some people do like sweets and others like savory, but if you find yourself craving sweets every few hours, and NEED something every day like I did (and strawberries don’t satiate), that is a major red flag.
For my female friends thinking, I get my period, I am fine.
If you get your period, that does not necessary make you in the clear, ESPECIALLY if you are on the pill. Just because you get a bleed each month, that is not necessarily a period. Your body can still have a withdrawal bleed, which may appear to be a period, but in fact, if you came off the pill, nothing would happen. If you have been on birth control for an extended period, I would recommend coming off it for 3-6 months to see what happens.
And adding in my male friends:
Both men and women can be struggling from RED-S without the period being the major factor. Renee McGregor spoke about this in her podcast episode with me, as again, did Dr G, but if you find yourself with low hormone levels (guys, thats testosterone for you), insomnia, stomach upsets often, or feel cold often, especially in your fingers and toes, those are major warning signs. If you find it difficult to take a day off or keep ending up with injuries, especially bone injuries, those are also major red flags. A period is not the only sign for a healthy body, so be warned.
Finally, just because you can change your ways and accept weight gain, it does not mean you never had an eating disorder. That was always a big one for me. I always thought that I couldn’t have had an eating disorder, I wouldn’t have been able to stop running as drastically as I did or gain 25lbs of weight without a problem. I can now say that I did have an eating disorder, and maybe always will.
I admit it, I do have some form of an eating disorder, now what?
I know it is incredibly scary, and you are going to want to ignore me here, but please don’t.
It can be setting yourself up with a therapist, it can be me, or a relative stranger if you are not yet ready to tell family or friends, but you need to say it out loud.
Once you do that, you are on your way to getting the help you need to begin the recovery process.
It will feel good to get it out of your head, as you have probably known something was off for a while, but had been ignoring the warning signs. Now you are ready to take the next step.
First step I would recommend is to find yourself a registered dietitian to work with. I know they can be expensive, and it may be money you don’t feel like you have to spend in the first place, but remember, this is your whole life. Food is not like alcohol where you can abstain and avoid it, you have to eat at least three times a day every day for the rest of your life. And eating disorders can get worse quickly, reaching a point where there is either no going back or you have an incredibly hard battle ahead to find normalcy ever again.
Investing in a registered dietitian will be worth the investment, YOU are worth the investment in yourself. As I have said, it is possible to live a life free from these heavy thoughts and obsessiveness, but working with someone who knows what they are doing is going to be a big part of it. If you can find someone who has expertise in working with eating disorders, that is even better. The National Eating Disorder Awareness page has some great resources of where to find someone near you.
Next, I would recommend finding a therapist, psychologist, counselor, someone who you can talk to about what is going on underneath. The food is the “drug of choice” that we control, but there are some deep self confidence issues that are going to manifest in other areas until you address them. Again, I know this can be expensive, and I hate to pay the $150 an hour to see someone too, trust me, I get it, but it makes a world of difference. If you really cannot afford to see someone, at least at this time, again, the NEDA website has a helpline for you to talk to someone.
When you feel ready, sharing about what you are going through is very powerful. You may not have a big audience, but that doesn’t matter, getting it off your chest, and showing others in your life that you are working on something really hard, is enough. It is scary to put yourself out there, but it will also empower you, show you that you are more than your body.
Take a read of this post about learning to love your body, a lot of the suggestions in that I would also recommend, especially staying away from following social media profiles of anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself. Find new people who inspire you to believe in who you are.
On that note, I recommend adding your email below to also do this exercise to build your confidence in who you are by seeing yourself through the lens that others see you.
Where else can I learn more about nutrition and running
I know this post has hit heavy on the negative sides, about those who are struggling with their relationship with food, but the podcast episodes I will share are beneficial for everyone. If performance is your goal, the episode with Angelo Poli might be one you want to check out too.
I am not going to give you foods to eat or tell you what you should be eating before a race, I have covered that in the past, but these are all going to help you with seeing your nutrition plan in a less serious way, which brings more joy and will still allow you to reach some high goals.
Nancy Clark is one of the pioneers of sports nutrition, and guess what, she is NOT going to tell you to not eat certain foods. There are no good and bad foods, just unbalanced and balanced diets, and if you eat too clean, your diet is not balanced. This is real, authentic, and refreshing to hear.
Healthy eating for runners has overtaken our lives. Taking the joy out of food, and making us obsessed with weight gain or loss. Stop the cycle! Listen to this podcast episode with Renee McGregor about finding balance as a runner, without removing the foods you love.
Pelvic, hip, and sacral injuries in runners can stop you from doing what you love for weeks or even months, and they are becoming more common. What can we do to stop them from happening and how can we make sure what we eat is helping us to stay healthy not making us injury prone?
What we eat as runners can make all the difference. From how fast we run, to how we can stop getting injured, or to how we feel as people. No one knows the topic of eating well better than Meg Steffey-Schrier and Jessi Haggerty. Body image is something we all struggle with. These registered dietitians give us step by step guidelines on overcoming eating disorders, whether we are eating enough or not, finding a support system, and in the end growing to love our bodies. Because well, our bodies are amazing!
The notion for thinking “Food is Fuel” always comes to our minds as athletes, whether we are elites or recreational ones. We all know that food is an important part of our training, then why do we have such social stigmas around it? Renee McGregor is a performance and eating specialist dietician, who has helped anyone ranging from elite athletes to performance organizations, who may deal with this stigma. As you do these things, your body will take care of you and you will find a love for who you are.
Angelo Poli has been through his fair share of difficulties when it comes to managing weight when you don’t have the opportunity to workout regularly. What else do you have? Nutrition. Now, this is definitely a subject I don’t like to talk about because I don’t like telling people to restrict certain foods, but what works for me won’t work for other people. Angelo speaks on how we are all different! Come and learn how to manage your metabolism as it constantly changes in order to fulfill our goals.
It seems that we should know by now to celebrate body diversity but how come it seems we still struggle with it? Well, one of my favorite people Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani, who specializes in disordered eating, speaks so much truth on this subject. She speaks on the reality of food and just how capable our bodies actually are. She has really great insight which has helped me with my relationship with food tremendously.
I know that was really long, and in true Tina form, very casual, but if you enjoyed this post, and enjoyed my writing style, I think you would enjoy receiving my email newsletter, which is sent once a week. It contains thoughts for the week, updates, and things I have been enjoying. You can find out more here.