Note: In this article, I discuss some of my past disordered eating behaviors. If you’ve engaged in and/or continue to engage in disordered eating behaviors, and think you may need help, I urge you to seek professional help immediately. This article is in no way a substitute for any type of medical advice or treatment.
One of the most common questions women ask me is, “What diet do you follow?” That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?
One would think that, as a fitness professional, I definitely have the answer—the “best way” to eat to look and feel great. And you know what? I do. Before I share it, however, I need to tell you a little about my background and my past relationship with food, to help you understand why I know it really is “the best” diet.
I grew up a picky eater with atrocious eating habits as a kid. But, luckily, I was also active in gymnastics and cheerleading, which helped me sustain a normal weight in spite of myself—at least for a while. When my activity level dropped off at the end of high school and throughout college, my eating habits started to catch up with me. By the time I was 19 years old, I weighed 185 pounds, and felt physically and emotionally uncomfortable. I decided I wanted to get in shape, so I started making small changes to my eating habits and working out regularly.
About eight months into my journey I began dating a guy who was a bodybuilder, powerlifter, trainer, and nutrition coach. Suddenly immersed in the world of hardcore diet and exercise, I developed an insatiable appetite for manipulating my body composition, and, thus began my diet obsession.
For almost a decade, I experimented with every type of diet you can imagine: In an attempt lose body fat, I tried low-carb, low-fat, and low-carb and low-fat diets. I tried carb cycling, carb front-loading, clean eating with “cheat” days sprinkled in, and eating just 900 calories a day. I tried elimination diets and the Paleo diet to try to improve my health and energy levels. I tried eating as much as 3,200 calories per day to build muscle. I tried intermittent fasting, carb back-loading, and IIFYM when nothing else seemed doable and sustainable. There was not a diet that I haven’t tried.
In my experience, some of these “diets” worked well for periods of time, and some of them didn’t. But they were all missing the one component vital to long-term success: sustainability. Every time I started a new diet I was super jazzed to see my results, and simultaneously counted down to the moment I could come off of the diet and magically maintain all of the results. (I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has indulged in that diet fantasy!)
That was the problem with my diets—they all felt like diets. They felt controlled and restrictive, and they consumed me with thoughts about the foods I wanted, couldn’t have, would have later, etc.
Years of this cycle led to disordered eating behaviors and an unhealthy relationship with food and my body. Here are just a few of the phrases I’ve uttered over the years:
“I can’t eat that. It’s not my cheat day.”
“I’m not allowed to have fruit right now because I’m on a keto diet.”
“I can’t marinate my chicken because the marinade has too many carbs.”
“I hate fish, but my coach told me I had to eat tilapia because it’s lower in sodium than egg whites.”
“I can’t have onions. They have too much sugar.”
Like many with disordered eating habits, I not only deprived myself, but also binged, sometimes on purpose on my “cheat day” and sometimes because I couldn’t handle my “diet” for another second. I actually have days in my old online food logging software during which I logged more than 6,000 calories. In a single day. And those are just the days when I logged. There’s no telling what I ate on days when I didn’t log my food—but I was guess even more than that.
My disordered eating, in combination with multiple figure competitions (an outlet that allowed me to feel purposeful, even praised, for my disordered eating), as well as my diagnosis of autoimmune thyroid disease and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), led to years of weight gain and loss.
In the spring of 2013, following the most difficult 16 months of my life (the loss of my father, a back injury that led to years of chronic pain, the dissolution of my six-year relationship, and the loss of one of my businesses) my weight had slowly but surely climbed back up to 183.5 pounds, a mere 1.5 pounds less than my highest weight of 185. Granted, this 183.5-pound body looked much different than my 185-pound body (hello, muscle mass!) but I still felt like a failure.
I was a fitness professional battling an enormous amount of life and professional stress, while also trying to manage an autoimmune disease and PCOS.
Wanting desperately to lose the weight, I hired a nutrition coach. I was “too close” to my own situation, and thought that bringing in an outside expert would help. Over the next few months, I followed his meal plan—a simple, well-rounded diet consisting of approximately 40 percent protein, 30 percent carbs, and 30 percent fat that had me in a slight calorie deficit. I lost about a pound a week and got down to 173 pounds.
To the untrained eye, the diet had worked. But I knew better. I knew I was just white-knuckling through it, once again waiting for it to be over so I could eat what I wanted. Just like all the other diets.
I knew that what needed “fixing” wasn’t my diet. It was my relationship with food and my body. So I said, “eff it.” I threw my hands in the hair and decided I was done with dieting. I was so sick and tired of weighing, measuring, counting, obsessing, and placing my worth in the numbers.
I decided to simply start eating whatever I wanted, putting nothing off-limits (except foods to which I’m sensitive). “Eating whatever you want” may not seem like a big deal to some people, but for a serial dieter it’s terrifying. Still, I knew I had no other option. What I had been doing hadn’t been working because I couldn’t sustain it, and I told myself I could always go back if I needed to.
When I first started eating “whatever I wanted” it’s safe to say I went a little overboard. What I thought I wanted was all of the brownies, cookies, ice cream, burgers, French fries, nachos, and candy. I ate anything and everything, and often ate to the point of feeling stuffed and miserable. That only lasted about two weeks—the time it took me to realize that I didn’t actually want those foods all the time. I just thought I did because they had been off-limits for so long.
That was the first time I really tuned into what my body was telling me it wanted. For nine years straight, I was on some type of diet. In all that time, however, the one “diet” or approach to eating that I had never tried was moderation, or listening to my body. I had never tried just eating, letting it be, and letting the chips (and queso!) fall where they may.
In addition to listening to my body, a lesson I drew from those darker times was that despite the overall madness of it all, I had laid down a foundation of better eating habits. I had learned to prioritize protein, I ate more (and a greater variety of) vegetables and fruits, and I understood portion sizes and how to put together well-balanced meals.
My New Diet
In evaluating the experiences that had led me here I identified my biggest struggles—overeating in general, and bingeing on foods I considered to be off-limits—and I chose to focus on habits that would have the greatest impact toward addressing those struggles without feeling deprived or restricted. Those habits included:
1. Eating more slowly.
I’ve always been a fast eater, and it wasn’t unusual for me to clean my plate in five minutes or less. So I decided to work on this by slowing down, taking smaller bites, putting my fork down between bites, chewing my food more thoroughly, and taking up to 20 minutes or more to finish my meal.
2. Stopping when I’m 80 percent full or satisfied.
This has been the most challenging habit to practice. I love food, and eating until my stomach aches has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was never done until my stomach was bursting. Learning to feel satisfied while not totally full has been difficult. Today I can say that I successfully practice this habit over 90 percent of the time, and when I don’t, it’s almost always because I’ve made the decision not to. And that’s OK, too.
3. Asking myself, “What do I really want?”
When certain foods have been off-limits or classified as “bad” for so long, it’s easy to become obsessed with eating them, even when you don’t want them. I can’t tell you how many cheat days I ended at 11:59 pm, scarfing down a pint of ice cream I didn’t even want, simply because I knew once the clock struck midnight, I could no longer have it.
Now, I ask myself, “What do I want?” Then I have it. Most of the time what I want is meat, veggies, fruit, rice, or some sort of potato. Occasionally it’s ice cream, chips and queso, chocolate, cupcakes, and French fries. The difference now is that I am in tune with what I really want and can stop when I’m satisfied, which is often after just a small portion. Sometimes, I stop before I even start. There are times I’ll decide I want a cupcake and walk to the fridge to get one. Then I’ll stop and ask myself, “Do I really want this right now? Or do I just think I want it?” About half the time, the answer is no. I don’t really want it. So I skip it, all while feeling completely at peace and satisfied, because if I really wanted it, I would have it—and it would be no big deal.
For me, these were the “big rocks,” or the main things on which I needed to focus to reap the greatest benefits. I didn’t need to focus on prioritizing protein or eating enough veggies, because I already did that. I didn’t need to practice drinking more water and cutting back on alcohol, because those aren’t an issue for me. I didn’t need to cut back on fast food consumption because it wasn’t a regular part of my life.
You may be wondering what my actual diet looks like now. Well, I’m doing a carb-cycling-intermittent-fasting-moderation-primal-elimination-carb-back-loading-if-it-fits-my-macros-protocol. Heard of it?
In short, it’s an approach to eating that works for me, makes my body feel good, and keeps me satisfied.
Here are some of the basic principles I follow:
- I generally don’t eat my first meal until four to six hours after I wake up because I don’t enjoy eating first thing in the morning. What’s more, I find that if I do eat that early, it stokes my appetite for the entire day, and I’m insatiable. I prefer to just have coffee and water. Waiting this long to eat could be considered intermittent fasting.
- I eat almost anything I want in moderation until I feel satisfied and not stuffed, which is, well, moderation.
- I don’t eat a lot of grains, legumes, or soy because I don’t really enjoy them or feel good when I eat them. These are some of the most commonly eliminated foods on a Paleo or primal protocol.
- I avoid foods that tend to flare up my autoimmune symptoms. Occasionally, I pull out other foods to see how they make me feel. I’ve also done two full-blown elimination diets as recommended by my doctor to help with gut issues, and to identify foods that don’t agree with me.
- I eat more carbs on days I train, and fewer on days I don’t train. This falls under carb cycling, and is a moderate overall approach to carbs.
- I generally eat most of my carbs at night, which is recommended by the carb back-loading protocol. I choose to do this because I train at night, and I like to eat most of my carbs after my training. Plus, carbs can make me sleepy, and if I eat more than what feels optimal for my body at any given time, they often lead to craving more carbs. My PCOS and insulin resistance issues are probably why I sometimes react this way to carbs.
- Sometimes my carbs come from less nutritious sources like ice cream, candy, corn chips, chocolate, gluten-free pizza, or gluten- free cupcakes. Eating these types of foods in the context of an overall healthy diet is not unusual under the “If It Fits Your Macros” approach, in which no food is “off-limits” as long as it falls in line with the number of carbs, protein, and fat you plan to eat per day.
- I eat when I’m hungry, and stop when I’m mostly full, which is from the Common-Freaking-Sense School of Nutrition, and it’s funny that it’s been my greatest struggle for so long.
For the record, these are just guidelines. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules. What’s the difference? For me, guidelines serve as a compass, helping me make decisions, moment to moment. If I don’t follow them occasionally, it’s no big deal. Rules on the other hand, create a lot of “have-to’s” and, when broken, are usually accompanied by guilt and shame.
So what does a typical day on this “diet” look like? What I eat changes a bit from day to day, but here’s how I eat on a typical non-training day and training day.
Typical Non-Training Day Menu
9:00 – 11 am: 2 very large cups of mostly decaf coffee with some cream and a Splenda/Truvia mix, lots of water
2 pm: 3 turkey jerky sticks or a container of Greek yogurt, large handful of berries, a Diet Sunkist, and lots of water
5 pm: protein shake with 1.5 scoops protein, ½ frozen banana, avocado, cocoa powder, and unsweetened almond milk, or 2-3 whole eggs with 1-2 whites scrambled with veggies
9 pm: BAS (big-ass salad) with 4-5 cups veggies (spinach, spring mix, broccoli slaw, brussel sprouts, cabbage), 8-9 ounces of chicken, a couple of ounces of avocado, a handful of dried cranberries, and 3-4 tablespoons of poppy seed dressing
11 pm: 1 cup plain Greek yogurt with Truvia and 1 cup fresh mixed berries, lots of water, (optional) 1 ounce of dark chocolate or a serving of ice cream
Typical Training Day Menu
9:00 – 11 am: 2 very large cups of mostly decaf coffee with some cream and a Splenda/Truvia mix, and lots of water
2 pm: 3 whole eggs, ½ tablespoon of butter, 1 medium apple, a Diet Sunkist, lots of water
5 pm: 1 Quest bar, 1 packet almond butter, a Diet Sunkist, lots of water
7 pm: TRAINING
9 pm: 10-12 ounces of lean grass-fed beef with taco seasoning, 1 cup white rice, ½ cup homemade guacamole, handful of corn chips, 1 ½ cups roasted Brussel sprouts with butter, ¾ cup baked sweet potato with butter and sea salt, lots of water
11:30 pm (optional): 1 small gluten-free carrot cake cupcake, lots of water, green tea
As you can see, it’s nowhere near “perfect.” Just filling, delicious, and packed with mostly nutrient-dense food that leaves me satisfied and happy, and never feeling deprived. The most interesting part about looking through this “diet” is that I literally just pulled out the “common sense” elements of every single diet I’ve ever tried and combined them to create something that works for me. These common-sense elements have led me to:
- eat mostly whole nutrient-dense foods
- pay attention to my hunger and fullness cues
- not eat foods that make me feel awful, but otherwise not deprive myself of anything
- eat enough protein to build/maintain lean mass without overdoing it
- eat enough carbs to help me feel satisfied and fueled without overdoing it
- eat enough fat to make my food delicious and satisfying and to keep my body healthy without overdoing it
- eat enough variety to keep me healthy and feeling good
…which is exactly what I recommend if your goals are to look better, feel better, and get healthier.
The most important—and best—part is that there’s no stress. Some days I eat more than this, and some days I eat less. Some days I eat less junk, and some days I eat more junk, or no junk at all. Some days I eat my first meal earlier, and some days I eat it later.
There’s never any stress, guilt, or shame. There’s no “good” and “bad,” no “right” or “wrong,” no “on” and “off.” It just is, and it’s no big deal.
It’s my personal nutrition success strategy; one in which my diet revolves around my life, and not the other way around. And it feels good.