And how to make it good again.
“Strong is the new skinny!” a magazine headline screams, and 3 inches to the left a bubbly font boasts the 300 calorie dinner ideas you can find inside.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to condemn magazines. In fact, I love media. You could say I’m even a little obsessed, since I study communications at school and use that as an excuse to read and take in all kinds of media all the time (seriously, I’ve had destination dates to bookstores).
So what’s wrong with this picture – the “strong is the new skinny” magazine cover?
Media, especially popularized media, has a whole lot of power. This is power that should be wielded carefully, but often isn’t — a fact that I learned the hard way.
I’ve always defined myself as an active person… movement is just part of who I am. Nature, hiking, being “green”, and respecting the environment are high up on my list of priorities. I was co-founder of a Go Green club at my high school, for reference.. I’ve always been a runner and have always thought of myself as a healthy eater.
Growing up, chicken was the only meat I ate. I absolutely loved it — though to be fair, maybe it was because of the dinosaur shapes it came in. My sophomore year of college, though, I had a couple of REALLY disturbing experiences with chicken* that made me decide to be a vegetarian. I also strayed from the milk at the dining hall because it wasn’t organic. These changes to my diet had a bigger effect on me than I could have anticipated, and when I came home the summer after my sophomore year and discovered that re-introducing products with lactose hurt my stomach, I decided to become vegan (with the exception of Quest bars).
I’d never eaten eggs and had only briefly flirted with cheese and honey, so I didn’t think this was too big of a change for me. It was also a great way to reduce my carbon footprint. I wasn’t trying to convince anyone else to become vegan, but I wanted to give it a shot. Of course, my family’s main concern was about protein, especially because I am a runner. What would I do without my grilled chicken and dino nuggets? So, understanding their concern, I promised them I’d do some research. And here, researching how to best take care of my body, is ironically where I got into trouble.
The more I researched, the more info I found saying I should avoid certain foods. This advice went beyond the restrictions of veganism and into the extreme. I tried to adopt a more plant-based diet (again, minus the Quest bars I saw all over Instagram).
I wasn’t fearful of the foods I read I should be avoiding, but I genuinely just wanted to be healthy. So I cut out a lot of foods. And as I changed my ways, at first I felt GREAT. However, as someone who’s always been on the slim/slightly underweight side, it was not a pleasant surprise, or an intentional change at all, when I stepped onto the scale to get fitted for a zip line harness and learned I’d lost weight (told you I like being active!)
My doctor was concerned, my parents were concerned, and so was I; but I hadn’t lost too much weight, so together we agreed on a simple plan to stop what I’d unintentionally started. I was told that I should watch my intake, make sure I was eating enough, and that was that.
So I needed to research what constituted eating “enough”. I went online to some of the accounts I trusted, where I’d first read about “healthy” eating habits. These, of course, were the same ones that told me that salt, oils, processed foods, too many grains, etc. were bad for me. There, I saw recommendations for active girls who were my height to eat around 2,000 calories a day. I figured this must be enough for me: I mean, these were girls I who seemed to constantly do HIIT workouts, spinning classes, and more, and positively glowed with radiance on their Instagrams while eating less than this amount!
Let’s pause quickly to reflect on this calorie number, though. That 300-calorie dinner advertised on the magazine? If that’s the calorie count of each of your three meals for the day, and let’s say you maybe have another 300 calories of snacks in between, you’re still only clocking in at 1,200 calories. That’s 800 less than what I thought I should be eating at this point. To me, 2,000 seemed pretty reasonable.
So I started counting the calories of the things I ate, and was frustrated and confused when I went back to the doctor’s and discovered that I had lost weight AGAIN.
After a discussion with my doctor, I downloaded MyFitnessPal and started plugging in numbers. The app suggested a lower basal calorie rate than 2,000 calories for a person of my activity level: slightly active, I thought, based on the fact that I sat in classes all day and then ran before sitting around and doing homework all night. Here comes another problem, though: I wasn’t accounting for my exercise. I genuinely didn’t know to add in exercise to the app to truly make sure I was eating enough. Again, I was unintentionally failing at eating enough. I was trying to get back to being healthy, but I didn’t have enough support or information to know what I was doing.
As time went on, my days became overwhelmed with thoughts about food. I’d go on Instagram, scroll through “food porn” pictures, sit in class thinking about when I’d be able to eat my next meal,spend HOURS looking at recipes online (that I knew I’d never actually make, because they were way too calorically high to fit my regimented eating schedule) or spend hours in the grocery store staring at snacks (which I usually knew wouldn’t fit my calories either).
At one point, my diet mainly consisted of veggies, Quest bars and peanut butter. I knew deep down that this wasn’t healthy, but everything online told me that these were “normal” things that fit and healthy people did.
My mealtimes and bedtimes became increasingly regulated. It was because they were the only ways I could hold on and make it through; I was still running and lifting (though I genuinely don’t know how I had the energy), but I was cranky, exhausted, and not at all myself. I had stopped enjoying so many of the things that I used to love. I was hangry to the extreme…for months.
I participated in classes and did all my homework, so since I thought I was still functioning ok, I thought it couldn’t be health-related: I was just in a funk.
I look back on this time with so much regret now. My brain was so foggy and I feel like I missed a lot. College is such an important time of your life, so to not be present for a big chunk of it is painful for me to think about. But I believe everything happens for a reason, so at this point in time, I’m trying to find the silver lining.
My loved ones told me I was too thin, and I knew this was true. As a runner, I’d been proud of the fact that I had a butt and legs that could carry me for miles (and balanced out my lack of Victoria’s Secret-Worthy boobs). Now they were gone; my hips were too bony for me to even lay down comfortably and do ab work on the ground (bruises would stay on me for weeks because I had no padding). But when my family approached me, I would become massively upset.
Yes, I hated how thin and pale I had become, too, I hated how my hair had lost its shine, but I didn’t understand! I was counting my calories, doing everything “right” that I’d discussed with my doctor, and I had even started counting exercise calories once I’d realized my mistake. So what was wrong?
My stomach never grumbled anymore. I didn’t feel hungry — and this became the biggest challenge of my whole experience. See, when you starve your body for too long, your body adapts.It gets used to surviving off of a lower caloric intake and gets used to ignoring any and all hunger and fullness cues. And to be clear, I was starving with these low caloric values I found online, on top of all of the running I did, a fairly high base metabolism to begin with, and all of the walking I did around campus.
I felt like a shell of a human being who couldn’t fix this ongoing deficit because my body no longer could fix itself. It just kept relying on the faulty information that I’d been feeding it (lol puns) in my genuine search for balance again.
So what flipped the switch?
I don’t really know what it was that made me go to a nutritionist and ask for help after months of trying to figure things out on my own with only the limited information I had from my doctor (and the whole mess of misinformation I’d pieced together after seeing it online). On her recommendation, and the advice of my cross-country coach, I went to see a psychiatrist at school to talk about eating disorders.
My parents and I still disagree about this. We have different thoughts on the root cause of the disordered eating: you see, I never wanted to be thin, and I never feared certain foods or thought badly of others for eating in ways different than mine. I wasn’t your typical eating disorders patient who thinks they’re fat no matter how thin they get, who thinks they still need to lose weight. However, I restricted foods and calories to an obsessive amount and lost my hunger cues. I thought about food all the time (a natural biological response because I was constantly starving), which truly are habits of disordered eating, even if there was not a psychological root behind the problem.
I talked with my nutritionist about my caloric needs and discovered they were so much higher than I’d thought – especially as an active person who needed to be gaining weight.
My weight when I first had this conversation with her was scarily low. I was terrified, and so were my loved ones. I didn’t want to have to drop out of school or have to stop doing the things that grounded and de-stressed me, such as running or acting or studying. As someone who just wanted to be healthy, it was ironic and frustrating for me that I’d become so unhealthy because of this.
My nutritionist challenged me to add in some of the foods that, originally, online accounts had dissuaded me from eating, such as sugars, salts, added oils, big bowls of grains etc. I did eat them. Again, wasn’t afraid of these foods but it was still a big change for me to increase my calories so much – my meals went from 300 calories each to almost 1,000 calories each, and my stomach was kind of in shock.
At this point though, I was too scared of losing the things I loved in life (which I was beginning to realize I’d been missing out on quite a bit already), so I started doing everything I could. At one point, I was even eating whole jars of peanut butter in a day and using other extreme methods, to gain the weight back.
It was disgusting, but I just wanted the nightmare to be over. I wanted to be me again, not the overly skinny girl who felt weak and foggy. I knew that every time my parents looked at me, all they saw was someone who was too thin. And they watched every move I made. I didn’t feel like they saw me for me anymore, and that was the hardest part: I wanted to offer the world so much more than what they saw at face value. I want to give people hope and make them smile, and I wanted to smile and feel good for me too.
It took months to gain back the weight, especially considering I was still running for my track team and still lifting (both were approved by my doctors and nutritionists). However, I did eventually get there: I’ve finally gained the weight back, and I’m at my goal weight now.
The things that helped me (other than my loved ones, of course) were ironically the things that had gotten me into trouble in the first place: the media and calorie counting.
Calorie counting with a Fitbit allowed me to track my heart rate. This way, I could participate in activities that I loved and spend time with the people I cared about, like my team, without being terrified of the calories I needed to eat to make up for these activities. Without these tools, I would have said no to outings to avoid that unsure feeling that I was expending too much energy without eating enough to make up the difference.
Lifting weights and the active, fit people I followed on Instagram helped me feel really confident about seeing my “gains” lifting in the gym. Now, I’m proud knowing that I built my butt back up from square one bony-ness with the combined power of food and squats.
It was thrilling to see that I could do more pushups, lift more weights, walk around and shop all day, BECAUSE I was fueling myself properly. The fitness community is a support system I’m both passionate about and inspired by — and the Fit U community has been an immense support and motivation too.
I try to use all that I’ve learned about nutrition in the past months to eat in a way that feels balanced; instead of eating whole jars of peanut butter or surviving solely off of leafy greens, I try to eat a variety foods of various colors, allow myself to have and try different treats, and enjoy every meal (instead of gulping it down like the starving person I was). I genuinely look forward to working out and LIVING with mental clarity again, and it’s so exciting and refreshing to know that I can get through a workout completely confident in my body, and fuel up before and after without being starving or feeling weak and shaky at the end.
I feel like I’ve accomplished so much in my academic career and (hopefully) have a lot of chances for my acting career and my work with my major and with media. My goal is to work with books and films and share stories for empathy in many capacities over my lifetime. Now that I have my energy back, I can do so much more with those things. There’s so much more to life than what I unintentionally became.
I think I’ll always be passionate about health and fitness, and my goal as of now is to keep lifting, and also to run marathons and do crazy other things I can be proud of. I want to feel proud of my body and strength, and all that I’m helping it accomplish. The difference is that now I have other goals to focus on too—goals for my acting and school and jobs to apply for and bucket list items (hi Tesla, be mine please…).
I’m still a vegan and have been for about a year now. I started eating vegan when I realized that JUST eating Quest bars and veggies was not consistent with a balanced lifestyle that I was trying to grow towards—but I have been eating a much bigger variety of foods. I genuinely believe that veganism is not part of a disorder for me, but is because I care about the planet and want to feel good about the foods I put into my body (again, nothing against people who don’t eat vegan).
It’s something that will take time, but I want to learn to trust my hunger cues again. I still have to eat past those wacky hunger cues, but I’m learning again what I like to eat. I went on vacation recently and ate at restaurants with my family. I had pizza, cupcakes, and fried falafel — foods that never would have “fit” with the calories I was led to believe were healthy. I’m learning to be mindful of how foods make me feel. Because of that, I know I probably won’t have pizza and cupcakes every day, but I’d much rather be social and occasionally have a treat (whose calories I probably need due to my activity level) than ever go back to where I was.
I have a hard time with the word “regret.” As I said, I think everything happens for a reason, and I’ve learned so much about how many people are there for me during this time, who supported me through all of this and were there for me (even when I was a super lackluster version of my normal Energizer Bunny self).
I’ve also really expanded the foods I’ll eat. I never used to touch beans or garlic or avocado, but now eat them with joy. I now realize how much of a blessing it is to have enough food to power my body through working out. I’ve also learned how silly it is to blindly follow any “rules” that you see on the media without checking with real experts first. I wish I’d gone to a nutritionist the moment I decided to become vegetarian, but like I said, I have trouble with regret. Instead, I focus on the fact that I’m so proud of how far I’ve come and so thankful for everyone who supported me. I’m embarrassed that this all happened and what a waste of so much time in my life I spent on food and eating. I feel horrible about the stress and money from doctor’s visits, food, and tiny clothes that I’ve now donated that it caused my loved ones too. This was NEVER something I wanted to happen, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone in a million years.
I debated writing this for a long time. It isn’t usually my first instinct to share something so personal, especially in writing. It took a while, but I realized that of course I want people to know my story. After all, I’m so passionate about using the power of stories and media for good — it’s my major of study, after all. So I hope you appreciate mine.
Know that different people’s dietary and fitness needs work for them. Don’t believe every new study that comes out telling you certain foods or activities are bad. Go talk to a professional if you intend on completely changing your lifestyle, and throughout the process, check in with yourself. Are your energy levels high? Are you able to go out and do the activities you love with mental clarity most days? Don’t go by the numbers unless you have to (if, like me, you need to hit certain goals that are recommended by an expert). Ignore the calorie numbers on that recipe if you can, and try to eat the foods that you like.
Strong is the new skinny, but ONLY if you have the energy to better yourself: mentally and physically. Figure out what works for you, and have fun. Fuel yourself to chase all of your dreams, and enjoy this life without focusing on doing exactly what you see that others are doing. It may take some effort, but in the end, it’s so worth it.
Check out these articles too:
- My Name is Caitlin and I’m an Emotional Eater.
- A Day in the Life of a College Student Who’s Obsessed With Fitness
- 8 Important Lessons on Wellness from My Freshman Year
- There Was a Time When the Healthy Living Community Was Bad for Me
*Disclaimer- this is nothing against my school’s dining program – I acknowledge that it’s hard to cook for a lot of people, and we have many other good options.