Until a few years ago, I was afraid of fat. And fat in two different ways. Fear that eating fat would make me fat, and fear of being fat. Both had a hold on me for over half of my life, quite a long time to let something hold you hostage.
My first memories of my fear of being fat were at age 10. I have been a swimmer for almost my entire life, and 10 is when I remember looking at myself in a bathing suit, and realizing that I was bigger than the other swimmers.
(I’m the 6th from the left on the top row)
My arms and legs weren’t as different (well, my shoulders were), but my stomach stuck out and I was so painfully aware of it each time I put on a suit. I would try to suck in my stomach, just to look a bit thinner next to the other swimmers. At 10 I also started to notice what I put in my body, and if my stomach extended out after eating. I would feel bad about myself if when I looked down, my stomach stuck out a little. My parents fed us primarily healthy, non fried, non fast food meals. They did a good job at teaching us about healthy food. But still, I felt fatter then everyone else. I didn’t start to act on my disordered thoughts until later though.
Around age 12, I started to think about how much I should be eating, and starting to categorize food into good and bad categories. I began to associate what I ate and how much I trained in the pool and gym, to how I felt about myself. I wanted to be good, and I wanted to be thin and fast. Growing up in a half Italian family, we had a lot of cookies around the holidays. There were dozens of cookies, all different kinds and they were delicious. Going to my grandparents, I loved cookies and would sneak them and eat them, feeling bad about myself even more. Each time I ate something I deemed “bad,” it was as if I could feel the fat growing in my stomach and thighs.
As the years went on, and I became a better swimmer, I did lean up, but still, to me, my stomach was bigger then everyone else. Why, when I swam 12+ hours a week and spent several hours lifting weights (as a 12-17 year old) did I still have a stomach? I don’t think I was an over-exerciser then, it was truly how much I needed to do to be as good as I wanted. My body and feelings of being fat were something I could never understand, even as I entered college. Swimming at a Division 1 level had always been my dream. Well, the Olympics were actually the dream, but swimming Division 1 was one way to help me get there.
When I entered the program at Miami University, I wasn’t the fastest swimmer on the team, but I wasn’t the slowest either. I was determined to be the best swimmer that I could, no matter the cost. The first year of college was hard. A tough school academically, and a tough coach. Plus as all athletes know, coaches have different styles, and adjusting to a new style is hard. I didn’t have that great of a year and watched as another swimmer did. The coach would call out this person as someone to emulate, and as I watched her, she grew thinner and thinner. She was able to keep swimming, and doing quite well. So, I followed and began eating just a bit less. And then less, and less. Enough to swim, but enough to be noticed that I was thinner, and took it as praise.
Eventually I ate less and less until people started to comment that I was too thin and was made to go to an eating disorder group. The group was probably the worst place for a competitive athlete to be. If someone only ate this much, I was going to eat less. At the time, I knew what I was doing wasn’t great, but it felt good to be thin. And then, feeling like I was being forced to eat, I decided to start throwing up everything put in front of me. It was another challenge. At first, it was just a plate of food, but eventually it grew to where I would buy a loaf of bread, sneak into the bathroom, eat it and throw up. I knew this wasn’t normal, but I believed I would keep the calories out of my body if I could just throw them up. Bread, cookies and cake, all the sugary, terribly processed junk I could eat.
Being bulimic, your body does absorb some calories, and I put on enough weight to appear normal. My secretive binging and purging lasted throughout college. Upon graduation and moving home, I finally decided I didn’t want to spend my life looking into a toilet, a sink, a plastic bag or garbage bag and I sought help. I had been forced to see a counselor in college, but they didn’t really seem to help or care. Maybe because I didn’t want help and I didn’t care. I can’t even remember how I met my counselor in Victor, but thank goodness I did. She changed my life and helped me to see me as a beautiful, good person, no matter my size. I won’t lie and say that from that moment on, I was good to go, no more binging and purging. I had several more set backs. Including one of the real reasons we left Oregon and our business. The stress of not knowing whether we would have enough money to pay the bills and me not having any control over it, sent me into a downward spiral. I did seek treatment, but ultimately, selling our business was the only thing that would have saved me from me.
I believe that everything happens for a reason, whether it be good or bad. When I moved back to Rochester/Victor after college, I was in a bad way with my eating/bulimia. There was another person that helped me to see that I would be able to get through it. As I was just starting out in triathlon back in 2004, I met Mary Eggers, who herself was just starting out as a coach. When we met, she told me that she too had suffered with Bulimia and she had beaten it and look where she was. It was then that I knew I could beat it as well. It would take an additional 8 years but I did.
Meeting my husband also helped show me that I could be loved and thought beautiful by someone other than family. He met me during a time when I was still bulimic; I was carrying a few extra pounds yet he thought I was beautiful. It was one of the reasons I knew I had a keeper. Here was someone who didn’t know that I used to be much thinner and I used to be a very fast swimmer. He just knew me as a more normal weight and someone who liked to exercise. He doesn’t always understand, as his struggle has been putting on weight, not taking it off. But we’ve been together for 6+ years, and tells me I’m beautiful every day.
Every day is a struggle, I won’t say it isn’t. Logically I know how others eat, but when I look at food, it’s still different. Maybe one day food will just be what gives me energy, instead of something I don’t trust. I’ve worked a lot on trust of myself and trust around food. And I’ve come far, which made this last year very hard being injured. In the past year, I’ve gained about 7 pounds. I’ve cut back on my food intake as I am literally not able to do any exercise but walking now. Still it’s not been enough, and I have to me ok with it. I have to be able to look at myself and say, you’re ok. You’re beautiful. I don’t want a relapse and I haven’t relapsed. Those 7 pounds will come off, I just have to be patient.
And something’s that very important for me to say is, I caused my anorexia/bulimia. It was no one’s fault but my own. I knew what I was doing was not healthy, and at that point, it didn’t matter. This blog wasn’t me asking for sympathy or to get attention. It is just one more piece of my puzzle, of my life that makes me, me. What I’ve gone through makes me who I am today, and makes me a better person and coach.
Ok, onto the science part of this blog. Like a lot of people, I always thought fat makes you fat. Even after graduating, having taken my nutrition classes, I still thought, fat’s bad. Every gram of fat, is 9 calories. This is unlike carbs and protein, which are 4 calories per gram. So, logically, you think, fat stores twice the calories, cut down in it. In fact, this is the opposite of what we should be doing. The real culprit for most of America is our sugar and processed food intake.
Let me back up and say, some fat is bad. These include hydrogenated oils, trans fats in processed foods, fried food, butter/lard/Crisco. I think most people know this. They don’t think their fried chicken, buttered biscuit and buttered mashed pototoes are healthy. At least I hope they don’t. Good fats are monounsaturated fats and omega 3 fatty acids. These include things like, olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and salmon/cold water fish. And yes, they have more calories than carbs or protein, but here is why we need to eat them.
- Reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke
- Maintain healthy skin and hair
- Transport fat soluble vitamins
- Reduce hypertension, ADHD
- Reduce depression
- Boost our immune system
- Protects the cellular membranes in our bodies, and help our brain to grow and develop
- Keeps us satiated, and for someone with an eating disorder, helps to keep us away from sugary sweets
The last point was the key one for me. My eating disorder counselor realized that I was eating too many sugary carbohydrates and not enough healthy fat. Once I reduced the amount of sugar in my diet (like those 100 calorie snacks of chocolate covered pretzels) and instead ate one square of 85% dark chocolate, my desire to eat the high sugar food went down.
While in Oregon I befriended a researcher doing additional research. They mapped the human brain and with MRI, and were able to show that when someone who is hooked on sugar, or overweight sees something sugary like cake, a certain part of their brain lights up. When they did the same test on someone addicted to cocaine, sees cocaine, the same part of the brain lit up. Meaning, that eating sugar, does in fact make us crave more sugar. I shouldn’t generalize and say this is true for everyone. This was just one study. But for me, I know this is true. I will continue to eat my good carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits and 100% whole grains. But, cutting down on sugar was key.
So, try to trade out a sugary snack, and in place try
- having more cold water fish like salmon at least 1-2x week
- adding seeds (flax, sunflower, chia, hemp) to things like oatmeal, and smoothies
- hummus with carrots
- olive oil instead of butter
- avocado as a snack
In addition, taking an Omega 3 fatty acid supplement can make sure that you are getting the correct amounts of omega 3’s. Before just going out to buy any supplement, check with your doctor as some omega 3’s have been known to interfere with drugs that affect blood clotting. Whenever you’re thinking of a supplement, a good rule is ask your doctor first. They can check that nothing you are currently taking or eating is harmful when taken together.
My saying that fat’s are ok, is not an acceptance for you to go out and eat as much cheesecake as you wish. You still have to keep your fat in check, preferably for endurance athletes around 30%. Think healthy fats first, but occasional treats like a piece of cheesecake is alright too.
The journey to accept myself and fat in foods isn’t over, but I’ve come a long way. I’ve realized that self acceptance is one tough thing but I’m going to keep working towards it till I get it.