I was brought up on predominantly freshly cooked, homemade meals and freshly baked cakes and desserts. My Mum used to hand make and decorate mine and my siblings’ birthday cakes and we were often greeted in the morning with freshly baked muffins. In the evening, most of our meals were made from scratch, with only a small minority coming from ‘bang on a plate’ meals.
From a very young age, I was exposed to an extremely wide variety of foods. One of my Mum’s favorite memories to recap is grocery shopping with me (aged 2) and asking me what I wanted for lunch. I responsed by saying ‘smoked salmon or taramasalata’ (a Greek dip made from cod’s roe). Needless to say, passers by found it very amusing that I had such a sophisticated pallete! I was always allowed to eat until I didn’t want anymore and had some nasty nappy rash from consuming 7 satsumas in one go! My favorite packed lunch was a vegetable and wild rice salad and an Orange Club biscuit (not homemade, but those of you who grew up in the nineties in the U.K. can relate I’m sure!) Other than ensuring my food was as freshly prepared and as varied as possible, the only aspect of my diet my parents were strict about was sugar consumption (and not because of the carbohydrate content, but because it is not good for your teeth). Fruit juices were diluted and I didn’t have any candy until I was six or seven years old! In fact, my first packet of candy is one of my most vivid childhood memories! My parents were shopping for a car and bought myself and my siblings a packet of Fruit Pastilles each from a vending machine to keep us entertained! Neeedless to say, I treasured those sweets!
So growing up, I had a very healthy diet and a healthy relationship with food. I was, however, concerned and aware about my weight from a very young age. My brother was hospitalized from food poisoning when I was about six. When I was visiting him, I weighed myself on a scale at the hospital and was dismayed that I was more than five stone. I didn’t know what it meant, nor did I have anything to compare it to, but I think seeing the arrow go past the ‘5’ mark bothered me. It didn’t affect my relationship with food, but I was always aware from then on that I had much thicker legs than most of my friends.
During my teenage years, I learnt how to properly cook. I studied food technology (and loved it) and lived by myself from aged 15. I have always been very independent but became more self-sufficient when catering for myself. It was then that I began meal prepping in a very simple form, often cooking a pasta bake for my weekday meals or a chilli and freezing portions. At school, I became more aware of calories and naively opted for a wholemeal bread roll, apple and apple juice for my lunch as I thought it was ‘healthy’. I would then be ravenous come 3.45pm so would devour a chocolate bar (or two) on the bus journey home.
By the time I started university, I was a big time party girl. I often woke up at 2pm, drank a lot of alcohol multiple times per week and devoured chips (fries), cheese and mayonnaise at 3am. Aside from these habits, I often cooked with my housemates, who had also been brought up on freshly made meals. Our house favorite was fajitas, but we cooked a whole host of meals and had great fun doing so! I put on quite a bit of weight from my drinking and late night eating habits and was very conscious of the fact that both my housemates were a lot slimmer than me, even though I didn’t do anything about my weight at this point. In fact, it wasn’t until a drunken agreement to do a half marathon that I really pursued any exercise at all. Anyone who knows me knows how stubborn and determined I am, so, not wanting to break this commitment, I began running. I lost a few pounds and definitely became fitter, but I also really enjoyed it. I ended up doing three half marathons! Ever since my initial run, fitness has been a part of my life, but it is also since then that my relationship with food has been turbulent.
Gyms where I lived in the U.K. were few and far between, so when posters started popping up advertising the opening of a new low cost gym, conveniently located in the center of the city, it became hard to ignore the advertising. My boyfriend at the time already went to a gym and was really excited about this new, low cost, no frills gym opening. I was in two minds about joining, but in the end, I gave him my credit card and instructed him to sign me up! I knew that I needed someone else to commit to joining on my behalf otherwise it would forever remain an open tab on my Internet browser (so guilty of that!) My introduction to the gym was a Friday night circuits class with a very friendly and enthusiastic trainer (who I later hired as my personal trainer for the whole rest of the time I lived in the U.K.). I really enjoyed the experience and started going to multiple classes each week. I initially lost some weight, but then I began to plateau. I had heard a lot about meal replacement shakes so decided to pursue that avenue to help.
After a month of using two meal replacement shakes every day, I had lost about six pounds and was noticeably leaner. I really wanted abs (to be honest, that was all I really wanted) and was told the only way to get abs was to switch to the gluten free versions of the shakes. Not only did these taste disgusting, but they also didn’t give me abs. I gave up the shakes and rebounded. I found myself craving sugar (the meal replacement shakes, although high in protein were also high in sugar). My boyfriend had gotten a lot more interested in nutrition and exercise and read/researched a lot of information. I only understood snippets of what he told me and sort of ‘piggybacked’ on principles like carb cycling and cheat meals, without having the same level of knowledge as him. Frustrated at the lack of progress, I began following a meal plan. At this point, I was thought of as being ‘into fitness’.
I meal prepped every weekend, but without any sense of portions, not weighing any of my food unless I was baking a cake! I stuck to my diet plan and began utilizing ‘cheat meals’ at the weekend. These cheat meals were nothing crazy, normally a pizza and some chocolate, or something similar. I didn’t see any weight changes on the scale, but there was no doubt that I was getting stronger and I loved lifting weights. The relationship with my boyfriend ended and I moved into a house with two people I didn’t know.
When I moved in, I was instantly associated with being really into the gym; my protein powders occupied the space on top of the fridge, I went to the gym multiple times per week and spent most of my time away from work in workout clothes. My cupboards and space in the fridge were always full and I meal prepped religiously every week. This was probably around the same time that protein infused nut butters really started taking off and I would go to my favorite supplement shop to stock up on these treats (and the occasional protein bar too). I didn’t really look at the nutritional information, I was just of the opinion that the label says it is high protein, so it is healthy to eat. I often demolished half a jar of nut butter in one go, thinking this was a healthy quick snack, not realizing I had probably consumed about 800kcal. I was guilty of ‘piggybacking’ on what I had heard other people were doing, and, instead of having the knowledge (or portion control) of these people, would think that eating an entire box of granola advertised as being high in protein was a nutritious, healthy option. Being single, I cooked on my own and was always referred to as being healthy. Any time I went to eat something like a cookie, someone would make a comment in shock, something like ‘you aren’t going to eat that are you?’ Or ‘Nia is eating chocolate, what is that about!’ These comments made me put whatever ‘naughty’ food it was back. It was at this point that I started eating biscuits and cookies in private, either in my car or my bedroom.
My job became more stressful and I worked all hours. The gym was a welcome relief, but on rest days I struggled. I used to take Thursday off the gym, and after one particularly stressful day, I went to the nearest Tesco to buy a chocolate bar for the journey home. I was so indecisive about which particular chocolate bar I fancied, that the intent of purchasing one chocolate bar turned into two chocolate bars, hummus and crisps. The following week, I repeated my grocery shop visit and this time my haul was a bit more. A few weeks later, this habit had turned bi-weekly and my haul had turned into a feast fit for a child’s birthday party. A typical shop would be; a tub of Ben and Jerrys, a jar of Nutella, 2 packs of freshly baked large cookies (10 in total), hummus, crisps and a couple of cakes. By the time I got home, the cookies would have been eaten and I would run up to my room to finish the feast. I wouldn’t stop until it had all been eaten and then would forcibly make myself sick. The following morning, I would weigh myself and end up being distraught, limiting myself to egg whites and Pepsi Max all day. This habit became chronic and I didn’t tell a soul. I worried what people would think, after all I had the identity of someone who was ‘into fitness’. I also refused to acknowledge it was a problem and pushed it to the back of my mind. During this time, I began dating someone from Florida.
I moved to Florida and moved in with my parents. My boyfriend and I began preparing for a fitness photoshoot and I was put on a strict meal plan. Not wanting to fail, I stuck to it religiously so my binge eating subsided. My boyfriend was already lean and so adopted more of an intuitive eating approach. My meal plan and my adherence to it, became a sore subject in our relationship. He became frustrated at the lack of freedom and started making negative comments about my appearance. He insisted on eating extravagant meals out, where I was forbidden from choosing what to order myself. Due to the expense of the meals, I was always expected to pay him back sexually, and any resistance on my part resulted in blazing rows and comments that I made him feel worthless. By the time our photoshoot happened, the relationship was extremely toxic and it ended. Unfortunately, so did my adherence to any sort of meal plan. I was hurting emotionally from the break up, struggling to adjust to a new country and hating my job. I also didn’t realize how much emotional baggage I had from that last relationship. My binge eating started again, hoarding and hiding food in my room and eating it in the bathroom with my shower and fan on to mask the sound of wrappers. I was so miserable that the binge eating was the last of my worries.
After a couple of frank discussions with my Mum about my misery, I decided to make an effort to be happy and sought nutritional help from someone else. They gave me a workout and strict diet plan. The new workout plan motivated me and the diet plan initially excited me as the calories were a lot higher than my final dieting calories. The ‘clean’ approach got to me and the programmed Saturday cheat meal worried me. I started reading a lot for myself and longed to be utilizing an ‘IIFYM’ (if it fits your macros) approach but was worried about leaving my coach. I decided to calculate the calories, protein, carbohydrates and fats from the plan I was given and experiment. I gave myself two weeks, I told myself that if I put on weight then I would go back to ‘eating clean’. Two weeks went by and my weight was actually dropping. I didn’t have the urge to binge and my arbitrary cheat meals weren’t used. Several months went by and my calories were increased to a very healthy 2200.
During this time, I had become really interested in podcasts and started listening to New York Muscle Radio, among others. I loved the frank and honest approach and downloaded all episodes and binge listened over a week or two. When they announced they were looking for athletes, I applied. It is only since working with Pete and Anthony that my relationship with food has become as good as it is now. They evened my cycled calories, told me that all the supplements I was taking were unnecessary and took away all the rules. Fundamentally, they made everything much more simple. My previous coach had done a great job on getting my calories that high, but she really hadn’t helped my relationship with food. Over the past seven months, I have learnt an awful lot and have come a very long way. People still make comments that they are surprised I eat carbs or cookies, but now those comments don’t phase me. I am labeled as ‘into fitness’ more than ever and I am totally okay with that. I still eat Nutella, just it is weighed out instead of demolishing a jar in one sitting. For me, controlling the portions of what goes into my mouth has helped me become less obsessive about my weight and to be able to live each day without negative thoughts of food taking over. I am not perfect though. I avoid eating out where possible. Most of the time, people choose places where the food isn’t great, but also eating out and eating food prepared by someone else haunts me. It brings me back to a very dark place of my life and I don’t know that I am ready to address that yet.
I know the comments made from people about me eating biscuits or cookies were partially in humor and partially in surprise, but they really affected my attitude towards food. From there on, it was a slippery slope and I abused food in times of stress and desperation. The very notion of being labeled ‘fitspo’ was the very thing that made me the furthest from inspiring.