Further to last week…

This week a client emailed me this week to say she enjoyed my post last week and, despite my encouraging her to stay away from the scales, she felt panicked over their refusal to budge from 54kg. And those clothes I mentioned that could be used as an alternative measure? They still don’t fit. One of the reasons she came to see me in the first place was her inability to lose the last couple of kilograms she felt were hindering her training ability and subsequent race performance. And as we’ve worked together over the last four months, her weight has pretty much stayed the same: up 300g, down 500g, but still 54kg. To my mind, though, her other (more major) hurdle was overcoming the daily battle that went on in her head with food. Prior to seeing me she has had a long history of bingeing and purging, coupled with a near starvation diet that used to keep her weight in check.

A typical day would begin with a fasted training session around 6am with minimal fuel throughout. Breakfast would be at around 11am (depending on the day, that could be 1-3h after finishing the session) and would consist of fruit and yoghurt (low fat, artificially sweetened) followed by two large cups of tea with Equal in it. In between breakfast and lunch, Sprite Zero and more tea would be consumed to dampen hunger pains, as lunch would be around 3pm (never earlier) and consist of a salad with 50g chicken, oil free dressing, and a piece of fruit. Dinner, at around 7pm, would be meat and vegetables. However, the gnawing hunger from a few days of minimal food would give way to a sugar binge; a couple of squares of chocolate quickly turned into a block, followed by ice cream, some cake, slice or biscuits…and an inevitable purge – either through exercise or through vomiting – to rid herself of the excessive calories and overall feeling of a lack of control around food. This pattern had been going on for years, and while it represents an extreme example of the relationship someone can have with food, I suspect that this resonates with more than a few people on some level.

For this particular client, the pattern of eating was undermining her physical and psychological health. Slowly but surely her weight crept up and over time, the binge-purge cycle was no longer effective in keeping her at the 52kg that she felt was the ‘ideal’ weight for her – and hadn’t seen for a long time. She was also unable to concentrate properly during the day, had acne, was irritable in the afternoon and early evening and had difficulty falling asleep due to the uncomfortable feeling of a distended stomach. Though she recognised her behaviour around food was not healthy, she was having difficulty in changing her habits and contacted me when she became aware of my recent shift to a whole food approach to diet.

Over the last four months the progress she has made around the food is simply amazing. She has completely changed her food intake from one of deprivation to one of abundance. She faithfully followed my instructions to eat more, to remove sugar and processed food from her diet, to not be afraid of either fat or whole food sources of carbohydrate, and to fuel herself for her training sessions. The result of this is evident when you can see the changes in her skin, her mood, and her sleep. The bi-weekly sugar binges are now (on average) once every 5-6 weeks and nothing like they used to be. When they do occur, she no longer starves herself the next day. Instead she makes sure that she eats good sources of protein, fat and vegetables to help stabilise her blood sugar levels. She is far more in tune with her psychological reactions to food and notices that during times of stress, when her stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) are elevated, she experiences more sugar cravings and actively has to resist the urge to binge. Most importantly, in the last four months she has not purged once, a record for her in the last 10 years. I’m not saying that she has conquered her demons; far from it. The rules, feelings and behaviour around food have been constructed over a number of years and they will not disappear overnight. It may take many years and it might be that, on some level, they will always be part of her. But, in her mind, the number of wins she has had with eating a whole food approach to diet has her sold on it.

Despite this, she still fights an internal battle with not falling into the same habits of eating minimal amounts of food and filling up Sprite Zero and artificially sweetened cups of tea in an effort to get her back to the 52kg that I suspect she was never meant to be in the first place. This week when she emailed, she told me she had been spending her days in tracksuit pants as they were the only thing she could wear which wasn’t a constant reminder that she is not the ‘ideal weight for her’. I realised then I should have added a caveat to the post I wrote last week about using your clothes as a measure. Only use them if they are actually clothes you are meant to wear in the first place. Don’t use them as a yardstick if they were bought one size too small in the hope you would fit them in six weeks time. Or if they were pants you wore 15 years ago and you ‘should’ still be able to get into them (according to the BMI weight charts). Or if fitting into them is only possible when you do back-to-back spin classes and live on salad and diet Coke (like you were when you bought them). If you have any of these clothes lurking in your wardrobe in the hope of one day fitting them again then I want you to honestly evaluate the goal. If you recognise that a poor diet and/or poor habits lead you to grow out of your clothes and that, with a shift in habits and change to eating better foods, you may get into them again, then keep hold of them. If you had to seriously restrict your food intake to wear them for all of four weeks before falling off the diet bandwagon, or you never really fitted them to begin with, then I recommend giving them to the Salvation Army. My advice to my client this week was to get rid of the pants that epitomise all of the habits and behaviours contributing to an unhealthy physical and psychological sense of self. And go shopping – it makes everyone feel better.

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