<Originally posted on October 15, 2015> eat.simple is not about me. It’s about you.
But by way of explanation, I feel compelled lately to get out “on paper” why I have developed my philosophy about nutrition, and why “health and happiness” always, ALWAYS exist as a pair of ideas, matched up together, forever. What follows is my story. It's long, and it's personal. I just want it here so I can point to it when people ask me certain things. When my clients ask me how they can get leaner, how they can look better, how they can weigh less. When my peers start talking to me about calories or body composition or bikini shows, and my eyes glaze over. This is why.
Where Fitness Came From I was an athlete in high school, and then I got injured. Looking for an outlet for all that energy I was no longer expending in sports, I turned to fitness. I was immediately hooked. I got certified as a fitness professional as soon as I could. I was 18. So, if you happen know how old I am and care to do the math, I’m coming up on 24 years in the fitness industry. If you count my time spent in sports and athletics though, I’ve been “in the gym” since I was about 14 years old. A long time. I am very comfortable and confident in my knowledge of fitness. Anatomy and physiology: I geek out on it. I’ve tried everything the health and fitness industry has offered. EVERYTHING. I’ve lifted heavy. I’ve lifted light. I’ve bulked up. I’ve leaned out. I’ve yoga’d. I’ve Crossfitted. I've spun. I've OrangeTheoried. I’ve probably taken part in every fitness/health/wellness/gym trend for the last several decades. There isn’t much in the fitness world that I don’t know, or at the very least can’t wrap my brain around with ease. And because it has been such a big part of my life forever - and is now is the predominant force in my life since making it my chief source of employment and income - now more than ever I am staying on top of the new ways of thinking, the new research that continues to emerge.
In short: where fitness is concerned, I know my stuff.
Where Nutrition Came From The nutrition stuff became more of a focus for me about 9 years ago when I started getting sick and received a dubious diagnosis from my doctor: pre-Diabetes, some symptoms of which may have been directly linked to job stress. What a paradigm shift: a nutrition disease exacerbated by lifestyle factors! It really blew the “bro science” of fitness nutrition wide open for me. It was the trigger for me to start learning everything I could about our amazing bodies and how nutrition could support - or ruin - us in more ways than we ever realized. Calorie counting and macronutrient tracking immediately went out the window for me. What a misguided effort! I started to feel guilty because I'd been giving every client in my fitness career this very oversimplified, crap nutrition advice, without even taking the time to really dive deeper into the amazing human body. I looked around my beloved haven - the gym! - and saw hundreds, thousands of people (God, how many thousands over the years?!) failing. Failing to achieve or maintain health because the advice they had been given was so very misguided. Failing, and feeling dejected. I became obsessed with learning about how the body uses food. Six years in to this "nutrition obsession" phase of life (a phase I’m still embroiled in, in case you can’t tell), I bit the bullet and enrolled myself in the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition and received my Holistic Nutrition diploma. Holistic Nutrition was, at the time, the branch of nutrition that was most closely aligned with my growing list of beliefs, and - truthfully - one of the few diploma programs available. I wanted a diploma, a piece of paper, letters after my name. I wanted to be in an unregulated nutrition profession so I could create the nutrition business that I knew needed to exist, to help stop the cycle of failure that I was seeing being prescribed in the gym.
I am not a very holistic-y Holistic Nutritionist. I’m not pretending to be a hippy. I’m not into essential oils and herbal tinctures and while I have a passing interest in the chakras, it never once factors into my nutrition assessments.
Fitness and Nutrition. Sigh. Nutrition has always been lumped in with fitness. For so long, “fitness goals” included things like: I want to rock a body conscious mini dress at my high school reunion. I want to get on stage for a bodybuilding show. “Summer’s coming - get those bikini bodies ready!” This is a problem for me, as you will soon learn. Fitness has components. The "Components of Fitness" vary depending on what certifying body you belong to. I’ve belonged to quite a few of them and have seen everywhere from 8 to 14 or more different ones. A short list, off the top of my head, includes things like:
"Looking hot in a swimsuit" is not really a component of fitness. So if it hasn’t become readily obvious, my struggle with nutrition-and-fitness being lumped together is that this recipe speaks to body composition almost exclusively. And that’s a world I do not, will not, and - most importantly - CANNOT live in. And here is why.
Strike One: Starvation In my late teens and early twenties, I decided to mix it up and starve myself, like roughly 70% of girls in that age group at the time. Anorexia was my eating disorder of choice, and I was kind of a pro. I enjoyed the feeling of being hungry. I craved it. I was exercising a lot, because it was what I did, and if I felt my energy dipping to “blackout level” - as it did often - I could at least postpone it by eating honey packets that I stole in alarming quantities from restaurants. I got pretty lean. Mind you, I was young, so I probably would have been pretty lean anyway. But I also got to a point where my heart stopped really working for me. I suffered heart palpitations, debilitating insomnia and night terrors. I think if you had looked at me at that time, you might have thought I was thin, but not alarmingly skinny at all. I’m a tall person, I have a big skeleton. I’ve never run the risk of being mistaken for “tiny.” I still had a lot of muscle left over from sport/fitness - although it had begun to catabolize greatly. I got to a point where I knew I was very sick, and I decided to stop being anorexic. Except you can’t, once you get to that point. You can’t just stop. Like, I mean, physiologically. You can’t just start eating food again when you've effed up your metabolic function so spectacularly. Everything I tried to eat came right back up. When I tried to stop being anorexic, I got alarmingly skinnier. And sicker. And then blackouts became a frequent part of life and the heart palpitations became even more frightening. I secretly checked myself into the emergency room and was put on an IV drip of sugar and electrolytes to get my heart functioning. They hooked me up with a counselling service through a women’s health clinic. I got better. Except you never actually do: they say that disorder is with you forever. I feel like I nearly killed myself in the pursuit of being very lean. You might think that would be a startling lesson that would set a person on the straight and narrow. You would be wrong.
Strike Two: Drugs Please keep in mind, while all this crazy body composition fixation is going on, I’m very involved in my fitness career. I’m teaching classes, training people, teaching people how to be healthy. I’m an ambassador to physical fitness. Once I stopped starving myself, naturally my weight crept up. Reality check: I was STILL in my 20s and still pretty much effortlessly lean. But, not lean enough by gym-rat, body composition standards. You’ll never, ever be lean enough. You'll never be good enough. You'll never be happy with your package, if your package is all you care about. In an effort to keep body fat at bay, I took a two-pronged approach: 1) An extreme low-fat diet. I averaged between 0.5g and 1g of dietary fat per day. Shit-tons of carbs - basically ALL carbs - but we didn’t care about that back then. We also apparently didn’t care about the fat-soluble vitamins - shoutout to A, D, E and K! - but that’s neither here nor there. 2) Supplementing with ephedrine-based fat-burners. “Erin,” you may say, “those have been illegal in Canada for a very long time.” I know. I was smuggling them up from the U.S. I had to! Being lean was the. most. important. thing. Absolutely worth breaking the law for. These fat-burners made me IN. SANE. Actually crazy. Manic.
And also very, very lean. One day I rolled in to the gym to teach a few high-intensity cardio classes, and decided to lift some weights beforehand. I had taken my afternoon dose of ephedrine, and was warming up with a set of delt raises. 7.5lbs dumbbells over by the back mirrors at the McPhillips location of Shapes in Winnipeg. I remember this distinctly. You will always remember the details of the moment right before you nearly have a heart attack. Suddenly I noticed my heart rate. I noticed it. Have you noticed your heart rate lately? Probably not; it's not really meant to be "noticed." Mine was racing, bounding, almost leaping out of my chest. A quick pulse check had my resting heart rate up around 200BPM. Then I felt it: the sense of doom. Unmistakable. Side story: When I was an army medic, I had to recertify in CPR about once every five minutes, so I got pretty good at it. Your signs and symptoms of a heart attack include things like increased respiration, increased heart rate, radiating pain from chest… and then this one: A sense of doom. Your brain, telling you that you are about to die. I felt it. I dropped the dumbbells, walked to the front counter and asked very calmly for the front desk staff to call an ambulance. And I stopped taking ephedrine-based fat-burners right in that moment. I’d have been the leanest, fittest-looking corpse in the whole graveyard.
Strike Three: Overtraining So after nearly dying twice, I decide to take a much safer approach to my quest for lean body composition: Exercising 6+ hours a day. That’s not a type-o. Here was a typical day: 5:30am: Ride bike to gym 6am: Teach a fitness class 7am: Ride bike downtown to the YMCA near my office 7:30am: Swim 8am: Shower and go to work Lunch hour: Back to the Y to lift weights or run 1pm: Back to work 4:30pm: Bike to the gym 5pm: Teach two fitness classes 7pm: Bike home Spoiler alert: this is not the way to be a fitness goddess. This is the way to be walking with a cane at age 26. I got a little niggling bit of tendonitis in my right knee and decided to push through. FYI: Tendonitis doesn’t work that way. You can’t "push through" it. You just make it worse. So my tendonitis became tendonosis. That suffix, -osis, indicates that the tendon has died. Dead tissue. And tendons, being nonvascular, have no healing blood flow, so that tendon in my knee was down for the count. A nice/mean sports med doctors gave me a very stern talking to and a series of exercises that got me back to about 70% strength and mobility in that knee and that’s about the best I can hope for. But when it was bad, I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t weight bear. The muscles in my right leg atrophied, and my left leg overdeveloped. I had one tiny stick leg and one huge bulging leg. I was walking with a cane! In the name of LOOKING fit, I became physically incapacitated.
Physical fitness is not a LOOK. You can be very fit-looking and be on the brink of a heart attack. You can exercise all day, every day, and not be able to hold up your own body weight. Exercise to make yourself fit, able, strong, capable, mobile, badass. Eat food that gets your body functioning well, and weight management will take care of itself. But don’t worry about calories; earning them, burning them. Don’t worry about your bikini body. Please don’t spend a single moment of your amazing life worrying about those things. I beg of you.
I wasted the best two decades of my life fixated on things that don't matter: my package, my shell, my container. This story isn’t meant to be relatable. I’m certain not many people out there have gone to as many drastic near-death measures to achieve a desired body composition. But it’s my story, and it’s why I simply don’t, won’t and can’t go there in my nutrition practice. From me, you’ll get happy and healthy. I want you to have an effortless relationship with food, and with your body. I wish I’d had that my whole life. The good news is: I have it now.
Treat your beautiful body with the respect it deserves.