I was on a strict diet for almost half of my life. My career as a model kept me confined to one for 15 years, with a two-year break for food in my mid-20s when I quit the business because I was literally starving to maintain the size 4 industry standard. I had been hospitalized multiple times as a result of the diet pill/laxative/caffeine/ latest 800-calorie-a-day diet I had put myself on.
When I quit modeling at 23 to recover my health and sanity, I worked hard to heal the emotional scars of an eating disorder. The only trouble was that I still didn't know what I was supposed to eat? It had been so long since I had eaten what I wanted when I was hungry and stopped when I was full that I forgot how to listen to my body. I worked with nutritionists that all had conflicting answers, and one with a prestigious reputation even went as far as taking my blood and telling me that I would feel my best if I stuck to a diet of only butter, lamb, lots of whole-wheat pasta, Ketel One vodka and grapefruits. Luckily by that time I knew I was more of an expert on my body than anyone else, and quickly dropped out of her program $900 poorer. I wasn't looking for a fad diet, I was looking for a healthy way to live.
I got an opportunity to resume my modeling career at 25, and this time I was determined to do it in a healthier way. I told myself I wouldn't sell out and advertise a false body type that even I couldn't maintain. The only diet guidelines I gave myself were to keep things in moderation, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. For exercise, I would run, walk and practice yoga. That put me at 5'11" and a size 8, which also landed me on the division at my agency that at the time was coined "plus size." I didn't mind the term because I finally arrived at a point where I valued my health and wellbeing more than my waist measurement, even if it had grown some love handles.
The problem was, I was in a healthy weight range, but I still didn't feel that healthy. I had nagging back pain, no core strength, a consistent late-afternoon craving for Rold Gold pretzels and Diet Coke and general lethargy.
I did cleanses and elimination diets on occasion where I would shed pounds and feel clear, but when they were over the good feelings didn't stick. I wondered if the fit people out there had great genetics, or were just living on constant deprivation diets?
I went back to school to study holistic health and nutrition because I was still in search of some answers about how to feel good. As a result, I was back on a strict diet again. Every month we would learn a new dietary theory, and I would make myself a guinea pig. One month I was on raw foods, then a Mediterranean diet, then an Ayurvedic plan, etc. I finally ended the program as a vegan who was constantly hungry and gassy, and had acne for the first time in my life. A few months later on a cattle ranch in Colorado riding horses, my career as a vegan came to an abrupt halt when steak was served at every meal.
I finally gathered enough evidence to realize that I was sensitive to gluten, sugar, artificial sweeteners and soy -- and that meat was used efficiently by my body when it was high quality. I did my best with that information, and for the next few years started feeling pretty good. And then my chiropractor told me I needed to stop running so much because it was injuring my back and knees, I started getting itchy bumps on my neck, had missed periods and was sleeping all the time.
A naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist told me the cottage cheese and Greek yogurt staples in my diet were making my hormones go nuts. It turned out large quantities of dairy weren't great for me, either. I thought maybe I was destined to live on a deprivation diet after all, and other than yoga, I was clueless as to what to do for exercise now that running was nixed.
I was reluctant to give Crossfit a try because of an old rotator cuff tear, a delicate back and no interest whatsoever in lifting heavy weights. I had heard that it was a real man's realm, and to be a woman in Crossfit meant you had to look like an Olympic weightlifter, and also perform like one.
I quickly realized possessing Olympic strength wasn't necessary, but I didn't realize how little strength I actually had until I was faced with the dreaded pull-up bar and the evil devil of a weight lift called the squat snatch. I also didn't realize how tight, misaligned and inflexible my body had become during my years pounding pavement in New York carrying a heavy bag over one shoulder.
I started attending Crossfit classes about three times a week last January, and at the beginning, I sucked at everything. Really sucked. In fact, the only thing that kept me going at the beginning was my determination to not be the absolute worst performer in every class, because we keep score. My competitive nature helped with that, but what finally got me excited was the day I was able to touch my toes to an overhead bar I was hanging from. That takes flexibility, core strength and also a little rhythm. I never thought I would be able to do it. Now every month I am reaching some kind of personal best in workouts that vary from strength training to gymnastics to endurance exercise and sprints. My back problems are also gone thanks to building the strength up in my core and everything else that supports it. Oh yeah, and the back fat that used to squish out from under my bra is gone, too.
Crossfit gyms stress that what you put in your body to fuel it for the workout is just as important as working out itself. For me and many other Crossfit athletes, this means following a way of eating called the Whole 30. I must warn you, there is a lot of fat and meat involved. This kept me away from it for the first seven months of Crossfit. I didn't think I was a fat-and-meat kind of person. But after a few too many sugar- and wine-filled weddings and summer vacations, last July I decided to try the Whole 30 plan. It consists of 30 days of whole foods, promoting vegetables, a little fruit, eggs, meat, fish, poultry and lots of healthy fats like coconut oil. Giving up any processed food I was eating wasn't difficult, because I was eating so much nutrient-dense food.
I am still following the Whole 30 on most days, and for breakfast I start out with black coffee and some protein and fat, like eggs with coconut oil and some kale. For lunch I usually have a large salad with avocado and turkey or chicken. Dinner is the highlight meal of my day, and most nights is a sweet potato topped with yummy ghee (clarified butter), lots of broccoli drizzled with olive oil and a turkey burger patty. Sometimes I get adventurous -- like last week -- and make spaghetti squash spaghetti with red meat sauce. I don't eat any flour, gluten, dairy, wheat or sugar other than a piece of fruit every day. I feel great. I eat more food than I ever have, and it is absolutely delicious. I am never hungry between meals, and everything digests easily because it is so pure.
I'm sure you are wondering how much weight I've lost? Well -- I have not lost weight because I've traded body fat for muscle, and I wasn't trying to lose weight. But I am tighter than ever, and I am buying clothes one size smaller now. With my new strong body, I have more energy than I sometimes know what to do with, and I feel a confidence about how I look that I have never felt before.
I finally found what I was looking for, and it instead of a diet program that is about shrinking myself, I follow a lifestyle plan that is about expanding -- my strength of body, heart, mind and self.
For more by Erin Joy Henry, click here.
For more on personal health, click here
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.