I Don’t Believe in “Cheat” Meals…

My contest prep started about 11 weeks ago and to be perfectly honest it kind of started out on a whim–I literally decided out of nowhere around 15 weeks out from the NY Pro that I wanted to compete, so I took about a week to come up with a plan and started my prep the following week. Prior to that I had spent the better part of the last two years learning, practicing and fully embracing an intuitive style of eating. My own personal experiences and subsequently a position as an eating disorder nutritionist had prompted me to learn as much as I could about eating disorders, disordered eating, food issues, body image, and everything that goes along with it. Learning the concepts of intuitive eating and listening and being kind to my body was my “recovery.” Teaching and helping others has served to reinforce everything I have learned and experienced. It is something I whole heartedly believe in. Prior to starting this prep I was in a place where I literally ate whatever it was I felt like, exercised how and when I felt like it, and still maintained my body weight within about a 2-3lb range ALL THE TIME. I ate a lot of nutritious foods but not always. And I was perfectly ok with that. I was content with myself. I no longer focused on my body or sought after the next diet or worried about my weight. I no longer battled with food. I no longer binged on food. Food and my body no longer consumed my thoughts. And it was truly a beautiful thing.
I believe that every person has the ability to maintain his/her normal/healthy body weight through a nutritiously intuitive eating style. And that is exactly what I was doing. And it was amazing. But in my heart I am an athlete. The process of training for a competition or event really brings me true joy and I really missed it. But my options for competitive sports are somewhat limited at this point in my life. So with already being an IFBB Pro, competing in the IFBB figure division seemed like the most logical option. The only problem was, the style of eating required to achieve a stage ready figure body seemingly contradicted everything I had come to believe in with regards to food. But the more I thought about it, the more I believed I could apply and maintain everything I had learned, even in a contest prep situation. It was (and is) my belief that I could approach a contest prep in a completely different way than I previously had done (and in a way that is different than what is generally considered “acceptable”) and I could succeed at both competing and maintaining a healthy relationship with food. And then I could help show others how to do it.

My goal at the start of this prep was to prove to myself (and others) that it could in fact be done without diving into the unhealthy depths of disordered eating and food obsession and body dysmorphia and ruined body image. The truth is, I was coming from such a great, healthy place that the idea of messing with it by artificially controlling my food intake (i.e. not always listening to hunger and fullness cues and not always listening to what my body was telling me it wanted to eat) for the sake of achieving an athletic goal was actually quite a bit scary- but I knew it was going to be temporary. To me, contest prep is a temporary way of eating to achieve a temporary goal. This may be a rare opinion in the fitness world, but I don’t eat on a meal plan year round, and I don’t walk around within 3lbs of my stage weight year round (nor do I have any desire to do either. To each his own).

Having a healthy relationship with food and my body and preserving that relationship at all costs (even if it meant not being as “lean” or “ripped” or “hardcore” as everyone else) was my first priority when designing my approach to this contest prep. Because in 100% honesty, having a healthy relationship with food and my body– no longer having constant anxiety around food, no longer constantly worrying about what others think of how I look, no longer feeling the need to keep foods out of the house for fear of bingeing, no longer obsessing about what I eat—has led to a significantly greater amount of happiness and peace in my life than any amount of leanness ever has or ever will. And I intend to maintain that perspective at all times.

Along with viewing the contest prep style of eating as a temporary means to a temporary ends, I’ve also implemented some other strategies along the way to help me maintain my perspective. I have approached the entire process with a perspective of “I have permission to eat whatever I choose at any time and whatever my choice is, I trust that it is what is best for me in that moment.” I trust my ability to choose the actions that will move me closer to my goal. If I choose an action that is not consistent with this, I trust it is for a good reason, and that’s good enough for me. I do not analyze or beat myself up over any choice. I own it and I keep moving forward.

I don’t believe in “cheat” meals (or days). I hate the word “cheat.” To me the word cheat has a morally negative connotation attached to it. And so if I say I’m having a “cheat” meal, it makes it seem as though there is something inherently bad about it, like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to be doing, when in fact, all I’m doing is eating food. There is nothing moral or right or wrong about it- it’s just food. So there is no reason to feel any type of way about it. I also think the “cheat” concept makes me feel like I have to go and eat certain types of food and eat as much of it as I can because after this I can’t have any of it again until my next “cheat.” And this promotes a last supper, “stuff my face” mentality rather than listening to my body’s cues.  

The most effective tool that I’ve been utilizing throughout this prep (aside from reading and journaling) is something I’ve termed an “intuitive eating day.” This is not a binge day, a “refeed” day, an “all you can eat” day or a “cheat” day. My intuitive eating day is a day where I let my body decide what it wants to eat and how much. It is just a day of “normal” eating for me (how I would eat if I weren’t prepping). I listen to my body, I trust my body, I don’t measure anything, I eat generally nutritious foods (for the most part but not always), and I eat when I’m hungry and stop eating when I’m satisfied. There is no bingeing, no stuffing my face, no “last supper” meals, no “cheating.” I eat intuitively. For those of you wondering what that might look like, here is an example:
​Breakfast: Oatmeal/egg white pancake topped with peanut butter and sugar free syrup or honey

​Lunch: Chicken, sweet potato, large salad with lots of veggies and whatever else I feel like
​Snack: No Cow protein bar, trail mix (nuts/dark chocolate mix), fruit
​Dinner: Banza chick pea pasta with ground beef, broccoli, tomato sauce and cheese (this meal always varied- sometimes sushi, sometimes pizza, sometimes just steak and veggies- whatever ​I was in the mood for)
​Dessert: Dark chocolate with natural peanut butter (a couple of times I had ice cream because I really felt like it- Ben and Jerry’s “The Tonight Dough” is the BEST ice cream ever invented!)

So you can see, its mostly nutritious foods that I genuinely like to eat, not measured, not over eaten, but eaten in amounts that satisfy me. This is how I “normally” eat. And I’d like to stay as close to that as possible. Do I believe eating like this once per week has hindered my progress in any way? Nope. And even if it has from a physical/leanness standpoint, I don’t care. It’s important to me to maintain my ability to eat this way and I believe it has actually helped me stay on my game mentally- which is really the most important thing during a contest prep. I’ve also incorporated a bit of intuitive eating throughout my prep nutrition plan, but that’s a bit harder to explain and I’m not going to get into the details.

The key is, I listen to my body.

Dan asked me the other day what I wanted to eat after my show. And I looked at him like he was crazy. I have no idea what I’m going to feel like eating 3 weeks from now. And I’m not in such a deprived state that food is constantly on my mind and all I can think about is eating (fill in the blank). Sure I get hungry and sometimes I’d like to eat more or something different, but like I originally mentioned, my perspective is “I have permission to eat anything I choose at any time.” And I trust myself to consistently make the choices that will help me to reach my goal. But if I want something badly enough I can just have it (I can count on one hand and still have fingers left over the number of times this has actually occurred but just having that self permission with no fear of judgement is key for me).  I’m not obsessed with food and what I can and cant eat.

Now please don’t mistake this approach as a “lazy” approach to nutrition for contest prep. I can assure you I have worked extremely hard on my nutrition for this prep—probably even harder than I have worked in the past and definitely harder than I had initially anticipated I would need to. But that’s all the more reason for me to keep the right perspective. When the nutrition gets really tough towards the end, having the right perspective is crucial (for me at least). My emotional well-being always takes precedent over my desire to be hardcore or shredded, but that certainly does not mean I’m not busting my butt to be my best.

I’m going to take a guess and say there’s probably not a “prep coach” out there that would advise clients to do what I’ve been doing. But I’m also going to go out on a limb and say there’s probably not many (if any) prep coaches out there that have significant experience working with people with eating disorders. I do. And the way I see it, a contest prep is a self-imposed disordered way of eating, and it can lead to many of the physical and psychological effects seen in actual eating disorders. To complicate that, many people that gravitate toward the bodybuilding sports tend to already have some type of disordered eating behaviors, and food and/or body image issues to begin with, tendencies which can certainly be exacerbated by the contest prep. So why not try to develop an approach that addresses this head on.

Many people will disagree with everything I’ve said. And that’s ok. That’s why I do my own prep. And it works for me. I’ve worked with enough eating disorder clients to understand the tendencies and the mindset. I also know my own personal experience, I know what I’ve learned from it, I know what is important to me, and I know what I want and don’t want. Is this approach necessary for everyone? No, of course not. But it would probably be very beneficial for some.  This approach works for me because I took the time to understand my own eating behaviors and to truly embrace and practice an intuitive way of eating. And I’m confident in my methods. 

I started this prep with a complete and genuine trust in my body and my ability to handle myself when it comes to food. I would strongly encourage anyone embarking on this type of journey to do the same. Unfortunately, not everyone that competes will start from a place of a healthy relationship with food and their body, and even worse many athletes (and prep coaches) do not necessarily feel this is important (or maybe they simply do not understand HOW important it is). And this is a HUGE mistake. If you’re starting from a place that involves disordered eating tendencies, and food and/or body image issues, I can almost guarantee you that a restrictive contest prep will make things much worse. My suggestion would be to take the time that you need to address these issues first and foremost. Read books, seek counselling, ask for help- do what you need to do to get yourself to a place where you have a healthy relationship with food and your body. That’s usually going to mean putting off competing. But it’s necessary and worth it. Trust me when I say, a contest prep will not solve your eating and body image issues. It will not make anything better. There is no way to implement a safe and healthy contest prep if you’re not starting from an emotionally healthy place. Let’s face it, you can’t successfully navigate an intuitive eating day if you don’t know how to eat intuitively. Then all you’re left with is the restrictive eating/cheat meal cycle. And personally I don’t believe in that approach. 

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The Comparison Game

OK, some Real Talk here…This past weekend I found myself checking up on all the social media accounts of the women competing at the Governor’s Cup out in Cali, as I was following the results of the show. All I kept finding myself thinking was “holy smokes, these women look amazing, there is no way I can compete with that.”

STOP RIGHT THERE.

Yes, that’s right- my personal mantra from the very start of this journey has been that I am doing this show FOR ME (my own self-improvement), not for anyone else and certainly not for a placing. And yet I still found myself falling victim to the dreaded but all too common social media comparison game.  

Here’s some advice. DON’T DO THAT.  

First of all, we must realize that the beauty of social media is that it lets us paint whatever picture we want. It lets us show only what we decide to show. And so our “followers” can never truly know if they are seeing the whole picture. This is fine. But with that, we “followers” must take ownership and realize this fact and therefore try not to put too much stock into what we see on social media.  

Social media, fitness personalities, IFBB pros- it can all certainly be very inspiring. There are people out there who are absolutely AMAZING (like all those women that competed at the Governor’s Cup- huge props ladies- you all killed it!!). But sometimes, without us even realizing it, social media can start becoming a negative mindset trigger—and usually that happens when we start comparing ourselves, our bodies, our own journeys to those of others. This was the case for me this past weekend.

But you know what, I have no business comparing myself to anyone else, and neither do you. Luckily, I am pretty quick to recognize these negative mindset triggers and snap myself out of them. But for those of you out there that may not have the same awareness yet, definitely check in on yourself once in a while as you’re scrolling through social media and ask yourself what emotion is it actually triggering. Are you feeling positively motivated and inspired or are you feeling like you’re not measuring up?

The comparison game can really become a negative mind f*ck if we let it (pardon my language, I don’t typically swear, but it really is the best term to describe what I’m talking about). But the fact is, I am ME and you are YOU. We each have our own unique circumstances with different challenges and obstacles to overcome. What I do should have no bearing on you and vice versa. Regardless of what anyone else out there is doing and regardless of how anyone else out there is looking (at 10 weeks out, 5 weeks out or on stage)- it really has nothing to do with me. It does not change what I need to do on a daily basis to get myself ready for the show. It does not change my reasons for wanting to compete. And it does not make me any less deserving to stand on stage. Because my journey is my own and it is for ME. And I encourage everyone out there to take that same approach. You can only control YOU- your own actions, your own behaviors, your own mindset- and those things have absolutely ZERO to do with what anyone else is doing. So stop comparing yourself to anyone else and start focusing on YOU.

On a personal level, I’m going to take this concept even one step further. Most people involved in bodybuilding style competitions set the goal to become better with each show. And this is a fantastic goal- it’s always best to work on improving yourself as opposed to trying to “beat” others or to win a certain placing. But sometimes even that thought process can be a little detrimental.  I’ve found that every contest prep is different with different challenges and circumstances, so it may not always be fair to even compare yourself to, well, yourself. We always have to take into account our current circumstances. When I had announced that I wanted to compete in figure, I stated that my goal was to beat my 2013 physique. It seemed like a valid and motivating goal at the time, but truthfully, I really didn’t consider my circumstances before making that statement. I have now come to realize that I was in a completely different place in 2013, and so constantly comparing myself now to myself back then has proved to be a bit of a negative mindset trigger as well. In 2013 I had done a strongman show earlier in the year (and placed 2nd and qualified for the nationals!).  I was doing a lot of crossfit and conditioning workouts leading into and throughout my prep, and my shoulders were MUCH more functional than they are now. My ability to train at an exceptionally high level was much better (and I was training for fitness) and thus my training was much different than it can be now (due to my current injury limitations).  

Additionally, my focus has really not been on bodybuilding AT ALL in the past few years. In the last 2-3 years I’ve focused a lot on my career and made some major career shifts.  I’ve also adopted two rescue chihuahuas (my full time fur- babies), and moved in with my boyfriend and taken on the role of weekend stepmom to two young boys. In the gym my focus had been on a balanced approach to exercise that kept my body (and mind) as healthy as possible, and I even trained for and ran in a half marathon this past fall. So no, I have NOT been training for a figure competition this whole time. I literally decided about 8 weeks ago that I wanted to compete again and that was when I started training for it (giving me about 2 weeks to come up with a game plan and 14 weeks for a contest prep). So with all of that being said, how can I truly compare myself now to myself in 2013, or 2011, or 2008 when I stood on the Olympia stage. I am completely different NOW than I was in any of those times, so the comparison is not valid.  

But it doesn’t change my journey. It doesn’t change how hard I am working to be my very best RIGHT NOW in my current circumstances. All I can do is the best I can do RIGHT NOW, with what I’ve got to work with RIGHT NOW. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.

So just like I’m telling YOU to stop comparing yourself to others, I am also telling ME to stop comparing myself to others AND to myself in the past. MY current journey is what matters to me (and yours to you). RIGHT NOW is what I need to focus on, not what used to be.  I have no idea exactly how I’ll look the day of the show but I know I will be able to say that I did my very best. And that’s what truly matters. That, and sharing my journey and these types of insights with you guys, in the hopes that it may help you as well.

Fitspiration gone wrong

Recently I came across an article published in the March issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders that examined “fitspiration” websites versus the already known-to-be dangerous “thinspiration (or Pro-ana)” type websites.(Here’s the link to the article in case you want to read it yourself http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/25778714/ )

The study looked at 8 “coded variables” of potentially harmful messaging content on the websites, including things like food guilt, body/weight guilt and dieting/restraint messaging. Not surprisingly (to me at least), both types of websites shared common themes. In fact, the study reports that 80% of the “fitspiration” websites examined included one or more of the coded variables (potentially harmful messages). The study found that “…fitspiration (sites) include objectifying images of thin/muscular women and messages encouraging dieting and exercise for appearance rather than health motivated reasons. Such content may normalize compulsive exercise and (the) guilt inducing messages may contribute to poor body image…Research has noted the hazardous messages contained on “thinspiration” sites. The current study also indicates that sites supposedly devoted to healthy pursuits may contain (similarly) dangerous content.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the same results could apply to social media “fitspiration” as well as websites.

An additional study that I came across in my reading on this topic was aimed at attempting to identify demographic populations that most frequently visit/follow health and fitness related social media pages of 3 types- weight loss/fitness motivation (“fitspiration”), detox/cleansing, and diet/fitness plan pages.  Do you know what this study concluded? Teenage girls. Consumers of health and fitness related social media content were predominantly teenage girls.

Fitness family—WHAT ARE WE DOING?? The first study is indicating that we are essentially operating on the same level as pro-eating disorder websites.  And who are we promoting this to?? Teenage girls!

Something needs to change. 

The word “fit,” in the context we are looking at, by definition means: “in good health,” or “physically healthy and strong.” Nowhere, in any definition that I came across, was the word “fit” defined by anything about how a person looks. So WHY has “fitspiration” become so geared toward influencing how we look, instead of how physically healthy we are. Why are we promoting achievement of a “look” over achievement of health… (To teenage girls!!).  As a member of the fitness industry I can tell you first hand, the way a person looks is NOT an indication of his/her health status.  

One of the “coded” variables in the first study was “thin pose”- meaning a picture of someone posed in a way to make them thinner. This was not something that was typically found on the “fitspiration” sites. However, had they included a variable for “awkwardly twist your midsection to make your waist look as small as possible, pop your hip up to make your butt look bigger and don’t forget to flex your arm pose” I’m pretty sure the fitspiration sites would have scored even higher on their ability to promote damaging messages.

Here’s the thing folks, it’s OK to be proud of how you look. And it’s OK to post it up once in a while for the world to see. But maybe we all should start thinking twice about the true message we’re putting out there as well as WHO we are pushing this message on.  

You can be “fitspiring” without putting up a million and a half pictures of your abs (butt, boobs, etc). You can also be “fitspiring” without objectifying your body. You can promote healthy eating without encouraging restrictive/disordered tendencies and obscure food rules. And you can promote physical activity without insinuating a need for obsession or extremes.  

So let’s start actually promoting the concept of being FIT- as in “good health physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”  And maybe think twice before you post that next abs/butt/boobs [insert other body part here] selfie or your “guilt-free” restrictive food rules.  What message are you really trying to send and who in fact is listening?

They say “Love your body.” But what if you don’t (yet)?

Despite an overly vain fitness industry, we are starting to see a small subset of voices like my own spreading the positive message of “love your body” no matter your shape or size.  It’s a great message with great intentions.  But what if you don’t (love your body)? Unfortunately for people with body image issues (which is many of us), it’s not something we can just “do.”  If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have these issues to begin with.  So the question is, how do you go about learning to love your body for what it is?

Some of you might be thinking “well, it’s pretty easy for someone with six pack abs, perfectly sculpted shoulders, arms, legs and glutes- features which most “fitness icons” portray- to be promoting this message, of course they love their bodies!” Perhaps, but believe it or not even those “perfect bodies” have many of the same insecurities we all experience. But regardless, what about the rest of us?  

Let me first tell you where I’m coming from so you can understand why I’m using the phrase “the rest of us” (because yes, I’m including myself).

I am a “pro fitness competitor” (albeit retired– for now) but realistically, I have been single digit body fat percentage lean.  I’ve been one of those “fitness icons” (so to speak). 

But right now I’m about 150lbs at 5’5 (I don’t actually weigh myself so I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s around there).  My contest weight was about 130lbs (plus or minus water)- so I’m a good 20lbs heavier. My waist is probably about 28-29 inches.  I have far from what would be considered the ideal female hour glass shape.  In fact, I think my hips and waist are about the same, measured straight across.  I naturally carry my fat in my midsection, contributing to my “larger (by fitness industry standards) waistline,” and I’ll only ever have abs if I’m in contest shape.  I am FAR from “fitness icon perfect.” But you know what, that’s OK.  I’m not trying to be perfect. Because I’m happy with myself.  And regardless of any changes to my body in the future- leaner, heavier, whatever- I’ll still feel the same way.

 It hasn’t always been that way and in fact, it took me a very long time to get here.  But I believe it’s possible for everyone to come to a sense of peace with the body they are blessed with.

So how did I get here? What do you do if you know you want to get healthy and you know it’s time to start treating your body right, but you still struggle with body image? Can you improve your health and even your overall body composition (if you wanted to) all while still learning to fully embrace and love the body you have?

The answer is yes.

But it’s not as easy as so many people make it sound.  It’s a process. It takes a lot of hard work and consistency to CHANGE YOUR THINKING. But the end result is more powerful than any diet or workout you’ll ever do.

Here are some strategies that can help.

First things first, come to grips with the fact that NO ONE IS “PERFECT.”  You are not perfect, you will never be perfect, because we are not meant to be perfect.  In fact there’s no such thing as “perfect.”  That’s what makes each of us beautiful and unique.  Focus your mind on learning to love yourself for the person you are and what you can do.  Your worth DOES NOT come from what your body looks like. Period. End of story.  

Ok so now that we got that cleared up, here are a few more tips to keep in mind-

1.  When it comes to workouts, focus on function rather than a specific look.  It’s an unfortunate fact that, no matter how much work we put in, many of us just don’t have the genetics for that “ideal” physique.  So stop killing yourself trying to attain it, and stop beating yourself up for not looking like someone whose entire livelihood is devoted to his/her physique. 

Instead, focus on the amazing things your body is capable of.  Set performance and strength goals rather than “looks” goals.  Embrace how awesome it is to be able to lift more weight, or run faster, or master a new yoga pose.  And give yourself credit for making progress in these areas, regardless of what the scale or tape measure says.

2.  As I alluded to above, stop comparing yourself to the fitness icons.  Understand that for the majority of these people, their body is their livelihood.  Many are personal trainers or fitness models and their businesses are built based on their bodies.  Not to mention, they are able to spend a lot more time in the gym than most of us with jobs outside of the fitness industry.  I know I can speak for myself when I say competing got a whole lot harder after I finished school and jumped into a job that had nothing to do with fitness.  And this is not to say there is anything wrong with the fitness icons working in the business.  All I’m saying is FOCUS ON YOU, and what’s realistic for YOU to accomplish, within the realm of your own time constraints and personal responsibilities. 

3.  When it comes to nutrition, focus on health, not weight loss.  Shift your mindset toward eating healthy foods for the benefits they bring to your body, not for the amount of fat they may or may not help you lose.  Work on eating a variety of fresh foods and a balance of all the nutrients.  Treat your body well by fueling it with as much good stuff as you can.

4.  Try using positive affirmations to reinforce your belief in yourself.  Positive affirmations are simple phrases you can repeat over and over to yourself, that help you to “convince” your mind of what you want it to believe.  Try not to use any negative words.  For example, instead of saying “I will NOT say negative things about myself,” try saying “I WILL only speak of myself in a positive manner.” By using positive affirmations everyday you can help increase positive self image, even if you didn’t believe it at first (“fake it til you make it”). And you can google “positive affirmations” and find tons of examples.

5. Believe in your ability to make positive changes, even if they are small, and give yourself credit for any step in the right direction, no matter how large or small.  Focus on behavioral changes, not measured “number” outcomes (ie your weight).  The more capable and successful you feel in your ability to make positive changes, the better you will begin to feel about your own body.

6. Focus on other fulfilling aspects of your life that have nothing to do with how you look.  Friends, family, church, work, other hobbies, volunteering, teaching– find the bigger purpose in your life.  Because the truth is there is SO MUCH MORE to life than what your body looks like. And if your biggest focus in life is how your body looks, you’re truly missing out on all the joys life has to offer.

This totally sounds cliche, but remember, this is the only body you get.  You are unique.  You cannot have anyone else’s body, and no one else can have yours.  Do your best to treat your body with kindness and respect.  Be grateful for the body you have and what it can do .  Believe in yourself, stay positive and consistent, and follow the tips above, and you will be on your way to a better body image and a happier outlook, no matter your size or shape.