This post is a little difficult to write, as I don’t have a ton of research or facts to streamline for you and instead speak mostly from personal experience. It took me a long time to figure this out, and I really wish someone, or something had connected the dots for me earlier because my abs would’ve made an appearance sooner!

I honestly never realized I had a negative relationship with food until I was in college.

In fact, that was probably the first time I ever really thought about it. I was an athlete before that, and although I never had the killer body I probably should have given all the work I did, it never really dawned on me that food was so important because I always ate super healthy, especially compared to my friends. We never had candy, chips or soda in the house when I was a kid; my mom never bought the sugary cereals and we rarely had dessert. I remember running six to eight miles with a friend a couple of times a week in high school, and as a reward we’d split a huge Hershey’s bar at the reservoir afterwards along with the guilt. There was meat in almost every dinner at home, and we were of the clean plate generation where wasting food was sacrilegious.

You can imagine my shock and awe as a freshman in the very first day of an Environmental Conservation course at the University of New Hampshire when PETA’s wide screen presentation about the meat industry blew my whole meat-eating equation; protein became the enemy. I was immediately a vegetarian out to save the world one cow and chicken at a time. “I can’t eat meat.” The only problem with this was… Beer is vegetarian. So is Cinnamon Toast Crunch. As are Cheez-its… With a dining hall full of endless options and having the mentality that I had to finish everything on my plate, so began my freshman carbfest and subsequent weight gain.

That first summer I ate salads like it was my job, biked my way to work where I was also active as a pool director and swim instructor, and laid off alcohol. I lost the weight and felt like myself again. But looking back, I still had no idea what I did all that differently, aside from being more active and not drinking.

At some point a couple of years into my vegetarianism I became extremely anemic. Having a history of low blood pressure and vasovagal syncope on top of that, my doctor recommended I eat meat again or at least add more beans and other protein to my diet. I was also having a lot of digestive issues with pain when I ate and pain when I didn’t. Food in general was undoubtedly not my friend.

“I can’t eat.” I had an upper GI screen done to figure out what was going on. Diagnoses: Gastric reflux, delayed gastric emptying, IBS, and probable sensitivity to dairy. They suggested I buy Lactaid milk and gave me a whole bunch of Nexium and Prilosec to try, neither of which really worked. Great. Now, “I can’t have dairy.” (Which just made me want ice cream even more by the way.)

A handful of years later found me trying to get back in shape after having my daughter. I was eating meat in very small quantities, working out consistently, consuming way too much caffeine on the daily, and trying to stay at 1300 calories or less. “I can’t eat more than 1300 calories,” was the conversation in my head. I lived on Lean Cuisines, logged a ton of miles with the jogging stroller, did a few workout DVDs here and there. The weight fell off and all my pre-baby clothes fit again in 6 weeks. I only had a couple of fainting episodes. I was also just 23 years old. In hindsight this was really the beginning of a very long period of restriction, over-deprivation and “falling off the wagon” binging for me during which I thought I was relatively healthy.

After going back to school for my Nursing degree and spending more than two years solid working full time, going to school full time at night, severely undereating, skipping the gym, and fueling my study sessions with Cheez-its and skim milk as a reward for all that… well I’m sure you have a good idea of how I looked, and more importantly how I felt. It seemed impossible that I could take care of all of these other people while neglecting my own health. To everyone else I looked fine, but I was out of breath at the top of a flight of stairs and didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I needed to make myself a priority and made a promise to myself to set aside an hour a day for my workouts. I tried what had always worked for me in the past, not knowing I was set up for failure. I was eating Lean Cuisines again, tracking my food making sure to stay under 1300 calories. I was hungry all of the time. I would panic eating anything over 200 calories in one sitting, with the exception of my pre-packaged frozen “meals” of course. I loved food, but it seemed to hate me as I still had bouts of stomach pain and bloating, nights spent hugging the heating pad. I lost a couple of inches here and there, but nothing really budged otherwise. I still looked puffy.

I picked up a part-time job on the front desk at my gym just for the free membership and extra cash. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but that was the beginning of a very long and on-going education in all things fitness and nutrition for me. Ultimately grabbing the weights was the best thing I did and continue to do for myself but what really changed the game entirely was my relationship with food.

Like any unhealthy relationship it’s hard to see the issues with any clarity until you take a step back. That first step was tracking my food on an app at the suggestion of one of my trainer friends. I brought my phone back to show him a few days later, excited to tell him I had been “good” and eaten below my self-restricted 1300 calorie mark each day. But his reaction was the opposite of what I was expecting. “You’re starving yourself!” he declared and set to giving me a general goal of eating 100 grams of lean protein a day, with get this- MORE than 1300 calories a day if need be!

I should’ve been elated, but I was terrified. “I can’t. I’ll gain weight,” was the inner dialogue, along with complete confusion about what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat… panic set in.

Those first few months weren’t pretty, as I struggled to find a happy medium between my old approach of restriction and this new idea of eating more to weigh less. Just like my progression in the gym, my relationship with food is a process and at times it can be slow and arduous. As I started focusing less on all the things I couldn’t do or have and the way I didn’t look, I instead turned my attention to my body’s growing capabilities and how different foods made me feel. I focused on fueling my workouts as opposed to rewarding them with sweets. I discovered chocolate protein shakes instead of chocolate bars. Found that when I ate more fresh foods and fiber I had less stomach aches. Decided to reward myself with new sneakers or a new headband, and initially when I was still in the medical field, bought new (smaller) scrubs. It’s been YEARS and I’ve continued to learn and make small sustainable changes to my diet over time, mostly because restriction and “I can’t,” always ends badly for me, as I think it does for most people. Even the best relationships take work, and they require flexibility. There is no wagon. “Diet” by definition is not a list of what we can and cannot have, but simply the foods we put in our bodies. Flexible dieting has helped me to look at food as fuel, not as a reward for a fantastic workout, and I’ve realized real balance is about having the cupcake sometimes (not five) and eating real food (lots of it). I eat more now than I ever have, I weigh about the same as I have for a few years, and my dress size is smaller than it was when I was hung up on 1300 calories. I reward myself- with yoga, with an adjustment by the chiropractor, with a coffee or an experience like tickets to a game or show. I’ve made it my mission to help other people improve their bodies, their nutrition and their quality of life now, to learn from my years of personal experience.

So… I have a new challenge for all of you to help you better your relationship with food! Change your reward system! As a result of all your hard work, you get to:

-Cross something off the bucket list
-Take a hike; with so many trails to choose from in this area you could hit a new one every day for a while without repeating
-Get a haircut or a manicure
-Try rock climbing or an adventure course
-Go to the beach
-Visit a friend
-Buy yourself a new shirt
-Try a dance class
-Learn to scuba dive
-Take a mental health day off work
-Go to the zoo or to an indoor trampoline park
-Get a massage
…or something else! I hope this helps and whatever reward you choose, shoot me an email or leave me a note in the comments below and I’ll get in touch with you to see how it went!