How my post-contest eating disorder guided my nutrition advice

For my first bodybuilding contest, I spent the preceding months working my way down to damn near 1500 calories a day from basically just lean meats, tilapia, vegetables, and the occasional protein shake.  I would train five days a week, perform cardio every morning for 45 minutes and eventually post-workout for 30 minutes as well.  I would take random fat burners and nutrient partitioning supplements.  I would obsess over every half pound of weight and cut off all communication to friends and even some family, replacing the satisfaction of family dinners with that of weekly weights being on target.  

After the show, my world was flipped on its head and I began binge-eating.  I would hoard moon pies and Nutella and entire cakes in my bedroom and wait until no one was nearby to hear me tearing through the wrapping or see me virtually hunched over in a corner shoving food into my face.  While the most intense manifestations of my binge-eating slowly dissipated, the effect that competing had on my hatred of my body and embarrassment to eat in public lasted a long time.

For my second show, a similar, albeit slightly calmer, process took place.  The pre-contest period was characterized by rapid weight loss cycles, cardio and stimulant abuse, more social isolation, violent mood swings, and complete obsession.  One uncontrollable night, halfway through prep, in which I ate two bowls of cereal and a spoonful of peanut butter ended in tears and questioning my own self-worth.  And the post-contest period was no better: shaded with sadness, isolation, and even suicidal ideation, I dropped out of my fraternity, spent nights sleeping in academic buildings, and blew hundreds of dollars on cheap junk food to drown out the emotions and help me fall asleep.

A more holistic approach

If there was any silver lining to be had, it was that my narrow view of nutrition guidance was forced wide open.  Straying from the strict confines of my formal nutrition education, I started to consider the psychological aspects that prevent us from attaining our goals and, importantly, the distinction between the right and wrong motivations to achieve weight loss.  I ended up spending the summer, one year after my show, interning at a residential eating disorder treatment center, working under the head dietitian.  I did research on refeeding anorexic adolescents, interviewed multiple eating disorder specialists, and - with the help of friends - raised money for this cause.

All the while I considered how this newfound insight could apply to nutrition interventions in the population who did not suffer from eating disorders.  Surely, millions of Americans each day want to lose weight for non-pathological reasons.  Whether it be for health or simply to prove something to themselves, people everywhere want to get in shape and build a healthy relationship with food.

The answer to this, for me, was to combine the psychological and physiological sciences of nutrition.  I now preach the principles of habit-building as the cornerstone for inciting any sort of lasting change in eating behaviors.  Of note, since these ordeals, I have been able to rekindle my relationship with food while still maintaining a focus on staying in shape and prioritizing proper training.  I love food, I love looking good, I love lifting weights, and I now know I love helping others get to that exact same place.

Seeing that change is possible is usually a huge motivator for people to share their knowledge with others.  Such was the case for me.  After writing a Facebook post for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week admitting to my post-contest struggles, friends and those I had rarely spoken to started to reach out to me asking for help.  People I never would have pinned as having the same problems I did were messaging me, saying they want to get in shape but are tired of the cyclical, rapid weight loss attempts that predictably ended in failure.  They described their desire to finally find something that works.  I was able to help some of them build actionable habits and hold themselves accountable until they actually changed for the better.  

Change is possible

I am not in the capacity to work with those actively undergoing an eating disorder, though I am happy to refer you and speak to you otherwise.  I do, however, work to help those who have never had one or have recovered from one to rekindle your relationship with “gentle nutrition” and achieve the aesthetic or performance goals you want.  Know that a healthy relationship with food that is conducive to your own nutrition goals is entirely within reach.