I never thought I’d be celebrating seeing the numbers on the scale go up.
And believe me, the kneejerk reaction I felt when I first saw them, even though I knew I “should” be excited was, “OMG. I’ve totally lost control. What has happened? It must have been the dairy. No, maybe the gluten. Or maybe it was that vegan ice cream sandwich with 20g of sugar I ‘let’ myself eat.”
None of us are immune to those voices, not even us health coaches, now are we?
Well, not yet at least. I’m certainly on a mission to change that for myself and for my clients.
You may be wondering why I, a seemingly fit, somewhat petite, athletic and uber healthy eating (at least according to my instagram feed) health coach is sitting here writing about her weight.
You also may be a little confused as to why I am celebrating, publicly, the numbers going up…so much so that you may have already said to yourself any of the following:
1. Ugh, geez, you can have some of MINE.
2. You only wish you knew how hard it was for me to get the numbers to go DOWN, and you’re celebrating them going up?
3. It's about time she put on some weight..
Believe me, I've heard all of it before. But before you click away from this page, just sit with me and accept the truth.
Yes, my dear loves, I am celebrating putting on weight.
And it's not because I’m training to run a marathon in a blizzard or going to the moon for a month. The latter is an adventure I’d find quite intriguing. The former? Not so much.
Let me give you a little back story.
Back when I was a collegiate athlete at Duke, I could never get enough to eat between training 3-5 hours per day and studying my tail off to make good…no…perfect grades.
I always blew through my meal plan allowance with a month to spare and had to ask my parents for just a bit more money so I didn’t go hungry. I didn’t hesitate to eat pizza, French fries, and a milk shake in one meal.
And at the same time, I often wondered (and people often asked me), “Where did the food go?”
Always a size 2 or the occasional 0 depending on which brand I was wearing, I saw friends and colleagues put on weight in college, grad school, and young adulthood and deal with all of the frustration, shame, and disordered eating that sometimes came along with the ups and downs of gaining, dieting, and losing.
I was supportive but often felt my own sense of shame…like they were looking at me and judging me. Yes, when they would say, "Oh you’re so cute and little, I don’t understand how you can eat the things you do,” I always felt self conscious and judged.
I didn’t want people looking at me just as they probably didn’t want people looking at them.
Even though I looked “cute” and “little” to everyone else, I would feel self conscious or maybe even guilty for being able to eat whatever I wanted, not gain an ounce or an inch, and still have healthy cholesterol levels to boot.
After college swimming ended, I certainly exercised in my young adult life, but not at the levels I once did. So I wasn’t really earning my donuts, so to speak (though I contend that if you want to eat donuts, you do not have to exercise to earn them).
As it turns out, I was burning all those calories, just not in the way you would typically think.
What was my secret to keeping the weight off?
At the same time.
Despite scaling way back on workouts from time to time, years of burning the candle at both ends and overachieving seemed to keep my metabolism buzzing along.
As it turns out, when your stress hormones are pretty high because they’re trying to keep the side effects of stress from literally eating you alive, it messes with your blood sugar.
Editorial note: “Messes with your blood sugar” is obviously a highly technical, medical phrase. <wink> If you’d like the actual sciency and technical medical phrase and explanation, reach out to me and we can chat about chronic stress, insulin resistance, and what it may be doing to your weight loss/gain, your immune system, your digestion, your periods, and much more! I love to geek out over this stuff and translate it into non-technical, non-medical talk for you!
For me, "messing with blood sugar" meant I was constantly burning off everything I ate and constantly hungry and snacking. I thought for the longest time that was just because my athlete body and metabolism had stuck with me.
That was kind of true, but instead of the “pleasant” stress on my body of being an athlete and training, I was now dealing with the “unpleasant stress” on my body of holding way too high standards for myself, putting myself last, and piling 120 too many things on my plate at once.
Thus, for me in my body, stress was one method for quick weight loss. Or rather, in my case, just no weight gain.
So unlike some people who tend to gain weight when stressed, that didn't happen for me. It did gain me plenty of other "fun" health surprises though. And what exactly were those?
Wonky periods (another technical medical phrase).
You can read this blog and this blog about how stress plays into wonky periods for both myself and many of my colleagues, friends, and my clients.
If you don’t feel like clicking, let me summarize. When we have chronic stress, whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant stress, it’s still stress. And our bodies will borrow chemicals and hormones from our reproductive system in order to give us the “hormone juice” we need to support stress and stress hormones. Thus, wonky periods can result.
For me this looked like periods that came too frequently or too infrequently. Both were equally annoying. I also was a lucky winner of PCOS and a lovely series of ruptured ovarian cysts. Super fun.
Chronic stress also meant my immune system was always out of whack. Almost every month I had a sinus/upper respiratory/ear infection. I became allergic to everything under the sun. I experienced several stress fractures, muscle pain that just wouldn’t go away, anemia, chronic headaches, and of course, fatigue.
I constantly ran on empty or on fumes, and my body paid the price.
To add insult to injury, literally, all along the way, I was growing a tumor! You can read more about that here and here.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, a rare breed of sarcoma cancer had been festering in my lung for nearly my entire life. Guess what cancer thrives on? Other than the gene mutations that drive it, cancer LOVES to grow in an environment of blood sugar problems, chronic infections and inflammation, chronic stress, a weakened immune system, and lots of less-than-optimal food choices.
Another editorial note: I am not saying you will get cancer if any of these things describe you. Take a breath and step away from WebMD.
So not only did my lifestyle support the festering of a slow growing parasitic tumor, but the tumor itself contributed to the inflammation, stress, weakened immune system, chronic infections, anemia and blood sugar problems.
With that endless cycle, it is very clear why I had difficulty putting on even an ounce—well, except for gaining ounces of tumor. The calories and weight went to a grapefruit-sized tumor in my lung named Benedict.
Eventually, my health succumbed to that sneaky tumor and got really, really sick.
As I spent days, weeks, and months with a raging cough, fever, absent periods and hair loss, the weight literally fell off of me overnight.
I desperately did everything I could—from eating nearly an entire slab of bacon each day to putting protein powder in everything from yogurt to pasta dishes—but I still unintentionally lost 17 pounds seemingly overnight.
My clothes fell off as the weight fell off. I had nothing to wear. I had to buy new pants and I piled on layers of clothes to hide the wafer thin appearance I was starting to sport. To add insult to injury my thyroid went wonky and my hair was falling out by the daily handful.
Despite sporting multiple superhero outfits at hospital visits and feeling pretty brave most of the time, I still hated every minute of looking in the mirror and dressing myself during those few months. I stopped washing my hair so I wouldn't have to face the clumps and clumps. I would spend what felt like hours in front of the mirror deciding "If these leggings made me look too skinny."
See the photo below of me after a biopsy at what was just about the lightest weight (August 2015).
And then, it was like the Universe decided to play tricks on me and test my resolve. As I started to go through cancer treatment and my liver and metabolism tried to adjust to the chemicals and side effects of being so sick, I gained all of the weight back, plus an additional 15-20 pounds, seemingly overnight.
Again, I had nothing to wear. There was nothing I could do. I was so hungry because my body was rebounding from extreme weight loss, and I wasn't about to restrict food.
See the photo below of me, just 2 months later, on Halloween (October 2015), at roughly the heaviest weight in that timeframe. Sporting a hat to hide the hair loss and workout clothes to help me feel "fitter," you can see that the girth of my arms and shoulders in the same size t-shirt was quite different from photo to photo.
Eventually, I knew something had to give because I felt so uncomfortable and knew that the acne all over my face and the water weight I couldn't seem to lose was not normal. Citing the thyroid, metabolic stress and several other issues, my medical team put together an anti-cancer nutrition regimen for me: no sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no grains. We didn’t want to feed the cancer anything while we were trying to eradicate it.
Well, the nutrition plan definitely helped the weight, and the tumor stayed at bay for nearly 3 years as I recovered from very aggressive cancer treatment. In that timeframe I also trained for charity open water swimming races and built a pretty groovy business,
As I got more busy though, it seemed that even one skipped meal would result in quick, unintended weight loss.
It's no surprise that 1.5 years of aggressive cancer treatment will catch you, and it certainly caught me good.
I found myself anemic, back to wonky periods, and struggling with energy and keeping on weight after a very active (and amazing) trip of a lifetime to New Zealand.
Upon returning home and having to rearrange clients just so I could nap, I knew I had to re-evaluate what the right nutrition and exercise plan was for me. All that "busy"—most of which was pleasant stress and “good” stuff, was still catching up to me, especially in the presence of cancer recovery.
Again, something had to give.
Even though I had gone into the anti-cancer diet with no intention of having disordered eating, it occurred to me that the highly regimented and restrictive gluten/dairy/grain/sugar free lifestyle and diet was not going to work for someone as active and as much of a "rule follower" that I was at the time. It was a recipe for not getting enough nutrients for the things I loved and valued.
Life was too short to spend all of my time trying to use my diet to flee from cancer. So I decided that while eating a mostly anti-cancer diet was a good idea, it was unlikely that I would be able to "control" the cancer coming back or not by being 100 percent perfectly strict about the diet.
Truth be told, it was most likely that whether the cancer came back was up to the cancer and the Universe, and I would do my part, but stop fooling myself that I was totally in charge. There was nothing to be afraid about. Letting go of the need to control gave me a lot of empowerment to take care of myself in ways that kept on giving, long after cancer.
To fully recover so I could do the things I love without sacrificing my life and passions, I made three big changes:
1. I redefined "active."
I’d fought back to regain swimming as my “sport” after nearly a decade of injuries and of course, after nearly losing my ability to swim for good with an extreme set of cancer surgeries.
I’d taken on open water swimming as my new “sport” and “training regimen” and loved being back in the water. I was on a mission to raise tons of money for cancer research with Swim Across America.
I’d done two somewhat heroic swims, even by my own standards, had raised nearly $13,000 and was ready to make it a lifelong cause. But each time I trained for an open water swim, I noticed my weight would drop and it would take me weeks to months to get my energy back to a comfortable level.
Plus I’d have a flare of candida esophagitis (as unpleasant as it sounds) several times after each swim. My energy was depleted and my immune system was exhausted.
Something had to give. I chose swimming. I’d lost it and gained it back before. I knew I’d do it again when the time was right. It was clear to me that this was not the right time for me to be "in season" with swimming, and I was totally ok with that.
To be clear, I did not stop exercising. I walked every day (with a very energetic and rambunctious puppy, I might add, which is basically like its own Olympic sport) and did light Pilates and yoga.
Did I miss swimming, hard workouts or getting a huge burn?
Because I chose to take the value-driven path that honored my life and what my body was asking me to do.
It's not forever, and I suspect I'll get the swimming itch sometime again soon. How do I know? Intuition is telling me. Read more about that below in #3.
And do I believe that every active person needs to give up their sport or favorite past time in order to get their energy, weight, health, and periods back to normal? Absolutely not.
Thankfully, most every other person is not also going through cancer recovery while leading a busy, active life.
Something had to give for me, and I know that I made the right choice given the circumstances. There's a happy ending to this too--keep reading to find out what it is!
2. To gain freedom from the grips that food had over me, I stopped "villainizing" food
Repeat after me: There is no such thing as “dirty” or “dangerous” or “inflammatory” food. That is, unless it’s actually covered in dirt, it contains sharp objects, or it’s actually on fire.
And before all of you health coaches/nutrition gurus/wellness advocates out there pull out the Dr. Julie voodoo doll and start poking at her for saying such blasphemous things, please hear me out.
MOST food itself, with the exception perhaps of certain things that are made from the same chemicals as household paint or that you can spray out of a can, is not to blame. How our bodies react to the food is what we need to be talking about. Why the "fire" or "inflammation" is there in the first place is what we need to talk about. THAT is the part we can "fix" and “control.”
Don't get me wrong. Allergies and sensitivities are real and I have plenty of my own. There is a time and a place to eliminate certain foods—some temporarily, and some permanently—depending on the person. But for most people, an elimination diet is not a forever thing. In fact one of the most important parts of an elimination diet is the guided, mindful reintroduction of previously “bad” foods after taking the steps to heal your lifestyle, stress, digestion, and sleep. I help my clients not only do the elimination part, but also the re-introduction part. Both parts are equally important!
In the spirit of honesty, you can’t diet and supplement away a life full of stress, burning the candle at both ends, poor habits and choices, and always putting yourself last.
Yes, fixing the diet is a great start, but there is so much more to the equation that most people don’t tell you about. The body does not digest food well when there's 4000 things on your plate. The digestive and immune system won't be very happy and may throw tantrums in that state. Thus, you may develop food sensitivities because both systems are overreacting in response to the stress.
So what does living the lie that "food is bad" or "food is dirty" or "food will inflame me" earn you (as it did for me and as it does for most of my clients)? A whole lot of confusion and fear around food, in many cases like mine, disordered eating, and therefore more stress, more digestive and immune dysfunction, and a perpetuation of the sensitivities and allergies.
Do you see the endless cycle we can so easily get stuck in, even when we mean well and don't know any better?
For most of us, it would serve us better to put out the fires from their source, eliminate the sources of physiological and emotional stress, instead of eliminate all of the foods that keep us nourished and healthy.
For me, I saw that I'd fallen into this cycle and didn't want to be a slave to food. I chose to stop blaming food. I focused on letting go of the belief and mindset that food is to blame.
I focused on honing in on all of the lifestyle and mindset work. With a lot of coaching work of my own, stress became nonexistent to me.
I couldn't have done it alone, and it was certainly not always easy or popular. But in the words of Robert Frost: “I took the road less traveled, and it has made all of the difference.”
And this is precisely what I now help so many of my clients do every day.
3. I listened to my body with open ears and an open heart
Becoming in touch with intuition might be one of the greatest gifts I could have ever given myself. Using intuition to guide every life decision, including what I eat and how much I exercise or not, is part of that gift.
As I struggled to get my energy up and dealt with PCOS, I was told everything from “keep eliminating sugar” to “don’t eat grains.” But I always felt better when I allowed myself to eat grains, “white carbs” and simple starchy foods. And that’s not just because they tasted better.
So I decided that in the process of stopping the villainization of food, I was also going to do some experimenting. For several months, I felt very adventurous and at times like I was breaking all of the rules as I slowly increased how many added sugars, starchy grains, and “white carbs” I allowed myself to eat.
In my last blog I wrote about how rule breaking is perhaps the #1 thing we can all learn to do better, and I knew that in this case, breaking my own rules with food was another opportunity to get better at that skill.
I didn’t demolish the rules, and I listened to my body closely with each change. It seemed that things like gluten free grains, breads and pasta and potatoes sat really well with me. Those were a no-no on the anti-cancer diet.
On the other hand, I always felt bloated and gassy after eating corn and beans, which really cramped my Mexican food style. Shameless pun wholeheartedly intended.
But by simply tapping in and listening closely to my body instead of obsessively reading labels and restricting entire categories of food, I noticed after a few months that things started to change in ways I hadn’t seen for years.
My hair stopped falling out. I gained muscle. I actually felt motivated to do some light strength training. I was able to go on longer walks and keep up with my growing puppy. I was able to get out of bed in the morning and not feel like I needed 2 hours to “warm up to the day.” I wasn’t dog tired by the end of the day. I was able to work an entire week and not feel burned out at the end of it.
And yes, as my energy improved and stress melted away like the butter on my toast, my wonky periods became a thing of the past. Now they come like clockwork. There are no bells and whistles. Not painful, always predictable, and fairly uneventful. PCOS seems to have healed, too.
And yes, the numbers on the scale rose just a bit. I also noticed that my clothes started to feel a little tighter. Not an uncomfortable amount, but just like I filled them out more. I quietly celebrated as the voices in my head did their darndest to shame me for not being "healthy enough." But this time I wouldn’t let them.
And most excitingly, I recently took a week vacation where I was extremely active and did a lot of traveling.
For the past 4-5 years, a trip like that historically required weeks of physical, emotional, and mental recovery time.
Not this time. I not only surprised myself with how much energy I had left at the end of each day, but how little I needed to do by way of recovery when I got home. I was able to ease back into “real life” without the stress or overwhelm.
When I returned home from that trip, full of energy, that's when I knew that changing the ways I viewed exercise, food, stress and body image was totally worth taking the road(s) less traveled.
It's clear to me that I am not my body. In fact, this body is not “mine.” This body is just a beautiful gift from the Universe, a soft place for my soul to land, a vehicle that I am borrowing while I am here on this earth.
Likewise, I am not the cancer that took over a lung in this body. I am not the numbers on the scale. I am the beautiful soul inside, and even though I am a fan of using fashion and “looks” to express that beautiful soul, I truly believe it doesn’t matter what I look like and no amount of weight, body image, perfect cancer-free anti-inflammatory diet or perfect looks can portray what goes on in my heart.
I once equated my identity with my health, my job, what I ate, what I did every day, or how busy and stressed I was. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to fear food or hate what we look like or dread putting on a pair of jeans. We don't have to be afraid of what happens in our health.
We don't have to stress ourselves out trying to gain "control" over trying to be healthy. It's possible to do it from a loving, not fearful place.
It’s possible to love ourselves anyway while honoring and listening to what our bodies are asking our souls to do...even if that means eating “forbidden foods” without guilt or shame or letting yourself put on a few extra pounds if it means you’ll be able to truly live life to its very fullest.
I’d challenge you to consider the same. I understand that doing that might feel like learning a foreign language to you, because it once did to me, too. I'd love to help translate that language for you and help you see that you can gain freedom from it as well.
You can heal your energy, periods, immune problems and stress, and you can stop being a slave to what you and other people will think about your body.
I'd love to chat about it with you. Please don't hesitate to jump right over to my schedule and set up a free strategy call together. Together we can identify a plan and strategy to get you to gain or lose 5 pounds, improve your periods, improve your immune system, or just find freedom from the fear of food, doctor's visits or health problems.
Thanks for reading my story! I can't wait to hear what you think!
In love and health,