I Am Not My Body

I am currently in the process of training for a competition in which I will be judged solely on what my body looks like. One might think that this means my entire focus right now is centered on my body, and how it looks. But in reality, I am learning more and more as time goes on that even though this process is technically entirely about my body, it is really nothing about my body at all.  

For the first time in my fitness career I am approaching this process from a new perspective. For the first time, I am not doing this for the sake of trying to find happiness in my body- for the belief that a certain look, or being leaner will make me happier and more satisfied. I have already learned that the “look” itself cannot bring true happiness or satisfaction. True satisfaction comes from something so much deeper than an outward appearance. For me, true satisfaction comes from who I am and what I do, not from how I look. Through this process I am getting better at maintaining discipline in tough situations, putting the work in every day, staying positive and persistent, learning how to handle obstacles, and helping others—these are the things that bring me true satisfaction. How my body looks is just an (irrelevant) side effect. 

In this sport, it is always possible to improve. And thus, most of us that compete are never actually 100% satisfied with our bodies from a bodybuilding perspective because there is always something to improve upon. There is no such thing as perfection. But that’s one of the cool things about the sport. There is always the opportunity to get better. But not being satisfied with my body from a bodybuilding perspective is NOT the same thing as not being satisfied with MYSELF. It also does NOT mean that I hate my body, or that I’m even unhappy with it. Wanting to improve can be a process of self-love, of belief in my own power. But deep down I KNOW that my body does not define who I am. I am defined by my character, my actions, my integrity and the way I treat others- none of which has anything to do with how I look.

In the process of training for a bodybuilding-style competition, I think it is extremely important that “person” and “body” remain separate. This can be a very tough thing to do. This is a sport that judges the body, and sometimes it can be very harsh. You must not allow judgement of your body to morph into judgement of who you are. I’ll say it again, YOUR BODY DOES NOT DEFINE WHO YOU ARE. When you allow judgement of your body, from yourself or from others, to influence how you feel about yourself, this is a big problem. And it can lead to the emotional and disordered eating issues that are seen in the fitness/bodybuilding industry.

So how do you avoid this?

First recognize WHY you want to compete, and be honest with yourself. This sport is not only physically grueling, but mentally and emotionally as well. Before jumping in, you must have a clear sense of who you are and have some sense of satisfaction with that person, regardless of what your body looks like. Understand why you want to compete and be realistic in your expectations.

Maintain a clear sense of who you are outside of the sport. Seek satisfaction in things that have nothing to do with your body- work, church, family, other hobbies, etc. Work to maintain the positive and important things in your life (outside of bodybuilding) and do not lose sight of them for the sake of changing your body. Stay involved in and aware of the bigger picture. This is so important because too often a competition prep can become an all-consuming black hole that can negatively affect relationships, finances, work and even your own physical and mental health. Keeping a clear sense of who you are and what is important to you in the bigger picture can help you avoid falling down this hole. Trust me, it is not a path you want to take.

Continue to help others in whatever way you can. This is one of the most satisfying things you can do.

Focus on process driven goals rather than outcome goals or physical changes. This is an extremely important key to maintaining your “person” satisfaction. Currently, my process goals focus more on my mental game and I have found this to be VERY helpful. For example, some process goals that I’ve been working on are- improving my ability to handle unexpected obstacles that used to throw me off track; staying relentless with my positive mindset and reframing negative thoughts; maintaining the “self-love” concept of discipline (as opposed to punishment/fear) and putting in the work every day, even when I don’t necessarily feel like it (and then mentally building myself up in a positive way for doing this); and replacing thoughts of self-doubt with ones of confidence and faith in my abilities. Focusing on these goals helps take the focus away from my body and allows me to feel successful even if my body does not look quite how I want it to. Process goals are always possible to achieve, outcome/results/body driven goals are not. It’s important to understand that concept.

Practice self-care and keep your focus on daily behaviors. Are you doing the things you need to do on a daily basis? If so, then give yourself credit for those accomplishments, regardless of how your body looks.  

Recognize if you are improving or if you are self-destructing. Are you getting stronger mentally or are you breaking down? If you find that things are turning negative, it may be because you are no longer separating how you judge your body from how you judge yourself. If that’s the case, take a step back and re-evaluate your approach. Remember, even in a sport where your body is being judged, YOUR BODY DOES NOT DEFINE YOU. Be proud of yourself for who you are and for what you are able to do, regardless of what your body looks like. Never lose sight of YOU the person. You are so much more than your body. 

 

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Why Compete

There have been more and more stories coming out about the negative experiences women are having in the realm of physique based competition (figure, bikini, etc).  I myself have even spoken on some of the negative side effects I had dealt with from my involvement in the fitness industry.  So why would I voluntary return? 
From a personal standpoint, I’ve learned so much about myself and gained so much insight over the past several years. And one thing that remains true is I simply love to train for things. I’ve reached a point in my life where being an athlete certainly doesn’t define me. I am comfortable in my own skin and I know who I am. But I truly and simply love to train to compete. If a person loves to sing she should sing, if a person loves to paint she should paint. I just happen to love training, especially with a goal in mind, so why shouldn’t I do it, so long as it’s done in a healthy way. 

At this point in my life, my options for performance based training are pretty limited due to previous injuries. Things like fitness, crossfit, triathlons and even half marathons or other running based events are really not healthy choices for me as they will almost certainly exacerbate old injuries.  But I CAN train for figure in a manner that allows me to keep my body healthy without further progressing those injuries. 

But what about all of those negative consequences that go along with competing in figure? Well, one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that in order to embark on a journey towards any goal in a successful manner, especially one that deals directly with your body, you need to have a very good sense of self.  The fact is, when competing is approached with the right frame of mind, it can actually bring many benefits, none of which have anything to do with how you actually look. Discipline, persistence, work ethic, self confidence, strength, patience- just to name a few. There is nothing wrong with these characteristics. In fact, these are all pretty important attributes to possess to be successful for most things in life.  The problem arises when these things are rooted in fear. When behaviors are rooted in fear- fear of gaining weight, fear of not looking a certain way, fear of not being enough, fear of failure or disappointment, fear of not measuring up, fear of what other people think of you–that is when things become excessive and unhealthy.  Behaviors rooted in self love and a true desire to become a better person while maintaining a sense of contentness within yourself are not negative or unhealthy.  It’s ok to want to be better and to strive to reach goals- it just has to all come from the right place.  For example, discipline should come from a place of self love and self respect. It’s when discipline comes from a place of self punishment that it becomes unhealthy.  Obsession is not healthy. 

I can honestly say at this point in my life I have a very clear sense of what is healthy and what is not.  When I look in the mirror and ask myself why I want to compete, my reasons are exactly as I have written.  I love to do it. I love the process and I believe the process helps build me into a better person.  There is no hidden feeling of the desire to “get lean” because I don’t feel good enough as I am.  I love who I am. I say my goal is to match or beat my previous best physique. But the truth is, the actual outcome means nothing to me. It’s the behaviors and the process that truly matter. It’s challenging myself to overcome obstacles that used to cause me a lot of anxiety and feeling stronger because I can now push through them. It’s about learning to do the best I can, given the individual circumstances of each day, and feeling proud of myself for my efforts. I am no longer afraid. I’m not afraid of gaining weight after the show, I’m not afraid of what people will think and I’m not afraid of failing. I am choosing to do this for myself. 

From a professional standpoint, I feel it is my responsibility to lead by example.  There are way too many people in the fitness industry that are setting the wrong example. There’s way too much emphasis on the physical/vanity component with not enough emphasis on health. I want to show other competitors that they can choose to compete in a manner that emphasizes maintaining mental, physical and emotional health.  But who am I to tell people how to do it if I haven’t done it myself. I also work with athletes. Who am I to tell them that they can reach big goals in a healthy manner if I’m not doing it myself. I’m a big believer in the concept of actions speaking louder than words. And so I hope that my actions are what speak to those who look to me for help.

That’s why I choose to compete.

Protein Spiking- Not just a rip off, but a possible health risk?

There have been a few articles come up recently that talk about the dishonesty of some supplement companies using a practice referred to as “protein spiking”- essentially using single amino acids and other substances instead of whole proteins in an attempt to cut costs, thus altering (reducing) the true total protein content of the product (as compared to what is on the label).  As a consumer, I consider this a rip off.  But as a Registered Dietitian, I consider this a much bigger problem.

Before I go any further, let me first explain exactly what it means to be a Registered Dietitian.  Many people do not understand the difference between “nutritionist” and “registered dietitian (RD).”  Believe it or not, in many states, anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist.”  There really is NOT a ton of regulation for the use of that title or the training required.  On the contrary, Registered Dietitians (RD’s) are required to have a four year college degree with a specific subset of mandatory coursework.  In addition to an extensive list of nutrition courses, RD’s are required to take biology, chemistry, biochemistry, organic chemistry, and anatomy and physiology to name a few.  Upon completion of this coursework and a four year degree, RD’s complete a year long supervised practice internship within the nutrition field, a good part of which is spent in an acute care hospital setting working with doctors and pharmacists to treat patients with a broad range of medical conditons.  A HUGE part of the training to become a Registered Dietitian is learning the biochemistry behind specific disease states and the subsequent appropriate nutrition therapy.    Thus, we don’t just learn about “eating healthy” and “weight loss”- we learn a whole lot more about science and medicine. 


So with all that being said, I’m going to put on my “Clinical RD” hat for a minute and get back to the topic as to why this “protein spiking” is especially concerning to me.


In an attempt to reduce costs, some supplement companies have decided to put large amounts of free amino acids instead of whole proteins into their products.  This is done because protein in food products is often measured based on nitrogen content, and free amino acids contain nitrogen.  The difference is, single amino acids do not provide the same nutritional content as complete proteins (which contain ALL of the essential amino acids), and thus are not utilized in the body the same way. Although we typically associate protein powders with those looking to build muscle, not all protein supplement users are athletes or gym goers.  Some health conditions require an increased protein intake and often these patients will use protein supplements.  So if I have a patient that requires a specific amount of protein each day for something more significant than just a desire to build muscle, such as healing a major wound or recovering from a severe burn injury, and that patient uses one of these mislabeled protein supplements, he or she is not going to get the results we would anticipate and his/her health may be further compromised.


But aside from the mislabeling issue, are there in fact possible health risks associated with these “spiked proteins?  Well, that has a lot to do with which amino acids in particular these companies are using to spike their products.   The article that I had initially read stated that companies were using the amino acid glycine in their products.  Glycine is a relatively cheap, non-essential amino acid, which means it can be synthesized within the body (from serine) with a sweet taste, often used in flavoring.  Glycine is metabolized in three different pathways within the body.  In one of those pathways it is eventually metabolized to oxalate which is a major component in a common type of kidney stone.  


Now realistically, in an individual with healthy kidney function and a well balanced diet with adequate fluid intake, this shouldn’t pose too much of an issue.  However, in a person with compromised kidney function or in someone prone to or at higher risk for calcium oxalate stones, this could theoretically be a major concern.  Additionally, looking at the dietary intake of a person who we would typically expect to use protein supplements (athletes, fitness enthusiasts) we would most likely find that the individual is already consuming a high protein diet.  A high protein diet, especially from animal proteins, in and of itself can increase a person’s risk for kidney stones through a few different mechanisms.  One mechanism stems from the fact that the amino acid methionine, largely found in animal proteins,can increase calcium in the urine.  Combine this with a high glycine intake (from spiked protein powders) and that could potentially be cause for concern (increased calcium in the urine plus excessive glycine converting to oxalate = increased risk for calcium oxalate stones).  Furthermore, taurine was also listed as one of the amino acids used in spiking and some studies have shown that taurine has a potential diuretic effect.  This along with a high protein diet can lead to dehydration if a person is not drinking enough water and thus even further increase the risk for kidney stones.


One example of a population that this would be a huge concern for would be those people undergoing weight loss surgery, or other forms of gastric surgery (i.e. those performed to treat GI cancers).  The standard post-operative diet for sleeve gastrectomy and roux-en-Y gastric bypass patients consists largely of liquids, with a major emphasis on protein supplements.  It is typically recommended that these patients use high quality whey isolate supplements, however some patients cannot afford these products or simply do not like the taste and thus turn to other products on the market.  To make matters worse, a common post-operative complication of any GI surgery is dehydration.  I would hate to think that these patients are also now increasing their risk for kidney stones due to their clinically vulnerable post-operative state AND the use of mislabeled protein supplements. But it’s certainly feasible.


As if that weren’t enough, another major concern I have is the fact that some companies are using creatine monohydrate as a so called “spiking agent” in their protein supplements without necessarily listing it on the label.  The most recent studies have shown that as a supplement creatine is generally safe to use in recommended dosages in healthy individuals.  However it is recommended that creatine supplements NOT be used by people with compromised kidney function.  Patients that have End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) requiring dialysis have increased protein needs due to the depleting nature of regular dialysis.  Some of these patients may decide on their own to use protein supplements to help support their body’s increased protein needs.  If such an individual were to unknowingly use a product that was spiked with creatine monohydrate, they may be putting themselves at risk for further compromise.  


Creatine supplements are also commonly used by both athletes and gym goers for their potential benefit in assisting with overall strength and performance.  As mentioned above, when used accordingly this is a generally safe practice.  However, if a person is already taking the recommended (or larger) dosage of creatine and unknowingly using a protein supplement that may have been spiked with creatine monohydrate, this could lead to a person significantly surpassing the recommended dosages and possibly increase the risk for health consequences.


When all is said and done, we as consumers have a right to know what is in the products we are buying.  Although the potential health risks associated with this “protein spiking” may be more pronounced in certain populations, I would still advise using great caution when it comes to choosing supplements.  It’s unfortunate that companies are getting away with both deceiving consumers and possibly putting consumers at risk, however you the consumer can do something about it.  Look for products that have undergone thorough third party testing, preferably by a reputable organization such as NSF or Informed Choice.  Choose brands that are known for having high quality standards.  Look at pricing schemes.  If a particular type of product generally falls within a relative pricing range among most brands and then there is an outlier that’s claiming to be the same type of product but it is being sold for much less, question it.  Check the labels of the products you are buying.  Read the ingredients.  If things don’t add up, question it.  Just because your favorite social media personality is promoting a specific brand or product does not necessarily mean its high quality.  Do your research.  Stay informed.  Because in the end it can make a big difference, and not just for your wallet, but for your health.

That little thing called “genetics”

I recently read an article that talked about how people respond differently to different types/amounts of cardio based on genetic factors.  To me this seemed pretty obvious, but I don’t know if the majority of people out there see it that way.  Let me preface all this by saying, the majority of what I’m going to bring up is based mostly on personal experience, discussion with others and observation.  My college degree is in Nutritional Science (which was in fact a “pre-med” major because I used to think I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon), but in pursuing that degree, I took one class in genetics which covered nothing about training/exercise/diet.  So that is the extent of my formal scientific training in genetics. 


Regardless, I’m going to speak my mind on own my understanding of the topic as it may or may not relate to training/nutrition based on MY experience.


Genetics is something a lot of people bring up when it comes to having a certain “look.”  Typically in physique sports the top competitors have “good” genetics, or even what we may consider “exceptional” genetics based on their natural shape/structure.  For women, this may mean naturally wide/capped shoulders, tiny waist, round glutes, etc.   The fact is everyone has a different genetic structure to work with.   Unfortunately, in the physique sports, genetic structure plays a major role.  It’s not to say we have no influence on how we look.  Proper training and nutrition can certainly help to alter one’s physique in dramatic ways.  However, we are ultimately limited by our natural structure.  I think it’s very important to accept this when it comes to developing physique based goals.  Be honest with yourself and be realistic with your own physical capabilities.  We would all love to have “perfect” structure, but it’s really not worth using unhealthy/unsafe practices in an attempt to alter your own genetic structure (i.e. wearing a squeem for hours a day in an attempt to reduce your waist size) for a placing at bodybuilding show.


Another concept involving genetics that I think is often overlooked is how it may impact our nutrition and training.  This is why there is no such thing as a one size fits all training or diet protocol.  I’m going to use my own personal experience here to explain the points I’m trying to make.  I feel like I can use myself as a valid example because I’ve been an athlete for a very long time, I’ve been training for many years, I’ve worked with many different coaches and I have employed many different training and nutrition styles over the years.  In doing so, I’ve really learned exactly how my body will respond to certain things—in essence, I’ve learned my own “genetics” when it comes to training/nutrition.  


I’ve learned that genetically speaking, I build muscle very well.  Additionally, I hold onto muscle very well.  I used to joke that I could eat nothing but iceberg lettuce and my body would still find a way to utilize it.  But what does that mean in terms of training and nutrition.  Well, in terms of getting ready for a fitness competition, it meant I could afford to do a decent amount of cardio without a huge fear of burning muscle.  It also meant that I could be a little stricter with my carb intake and still maintain size.  (And as a quick note, it doesn’t mean that it was ok or ideal for me to be doing zero carbs and 2 hours of cardio for weeks on end- it just meant that I probably could do more than some others and still maintain muscle mass).  There are others out there that lose muscle with just the thought of extra cardio, and thus their training/nutrition should be tailored accordingly


On the topic of cardio (and I’d like to do a full blog one day on this topic as it seems to be one of great debate), I did a contest prep one time which included little to no cardio (at least, it was a significant amount less than my body was used to doing), and I really didn’t have great results with that approach.  In addition to my personal genetic response to cardio I also attribute this to the fact that growing up and through college, I was spending anywhere from 4-8 hours in the gym everyday training for gymnastics.  My theory is- maybe my body just needs a little more because of this (training adaptation).  There are plenty of others out there who can do an entire contest prep and get stage-ready lean with hardly any cardio at all– and honestly, if you can do it that way you should!  But that wasn’t me (and it still isn’t- to this day my body responds very well to certain types/amounts of cardio)


Another example would be my response to strength training.  Like I said, I build muscle very easily.  I know there are some competitors that typically include crossfit workouts (and/or a lot of heavy barbell stuff) while getting ready for a show.  In fact, I know of a fellow fitness competitor that trained for her last show using exclusively crossfit training (in addition to routine work)-and her physique is AMAZING.  However, personally, that approach would never have worked for me.  I did a lot of heavy training and metabolic stuff back in my day, which would have been similar to crossfit as this was before crossfit became mainstream (you can still see the youtube videos of my crazy training here https://www.youtube.com/user/Ergis1999/videos, but the fact is, that type of training was actually detrimental to MY “stage” physique.  It was awesome, I loved it, I got super strong and I had a blast, so I certainly don’t regret any of it, but it definitely did not help me out in terms of my physique round placings.  So why can some people train like that and look amazing, and others maybe not so much- well, for me, I build muscle quickly, I have a very wide and thick back, my traps insert high on my neck (they used to call me Marcus Ruhl when I trained with the guys) and I naturally have a wider waistline with very thick core muscles.  That type of training enhances all of those features– which is the opposite of what I wanted for the physique rounds.  But on a side note, my fitness routine kicked ass when I was training like that because it was the strongest I have ever been (you can see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPRtGeDue2Y if you don’t believe me).


The last show I did back in 2013 was my ultimate physique to date.  The reason why is because I understood my body and I trained very specifically with that understanding in mind.  I used lighter/moderate weights with a VERY (let me repeat VEEEEERRY) strong emphasis on the mind muscle connection and focused VERY hard on feeling exactly what muscle I wanted to be targeting.  I also did a good mix of high intensity cardio, moderate intensity cardio- not a ton of steady state stuff- and metabolic workouts.  My cardio was geared towards preparing me for my fitness routine– I felt like none of it was “wasted” or “mindless” – each cardio workout had a specific purpose.  My nutrition consisted of a moderate amount of healthy carbs, fats and proteins- a very balanced approach- but I ate mostly fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, eggs, sweet potatoes, lean meats, greek yogurt) because these were the foods I responded best to, from both a performance and physique perspective.   I also limited gluten because I generally feel much better when I keep it relatively low in my diet (side bar here, I do not have Celiacs disease and I do not advocate a gluten free diet.  There is nothing inherently wrong with gluten, and I CANand do eat a modest amount of food containing gluten, I just personally feel a million times better when I keep it low—again, learn your body).  


I can honestly say I did NOTHING excessive or extreme for that contest prep.  It was really a matter of using all of the knowledge I had gained along the way, knowing how my body would respond to specific training and nutrition techniques and being smart about what I was doing.  And I was able to present my best physique.  It doesn’t mean that the way I trained is the ONLY way, and it doesn’t mean that the way I prepped will work for everyone.  


The point I’m trying to make here is learn your own “genetics.”  Avoid falling into the trap of following certain protocols just because other people are using them.  Learn what YOU need to do to improve YOURSELF, whether it be performance or physique based, and tailor your approach with that specific goal in mind.  If you work with a coach, make sure you are both on the same page when it comes to your goals and your genetic response (and make sure your program is tailored to YOU).  


Furthermore, be honest with yourself about your own structural and genetic limitations.  We can’t all look like Ms. Figure/Physique/Bikini (or Mr.) Olympia, just like we can’t all perform like Rich Froning or Camille Leblanc-Bazinet (crossfit superstars if you’re not familiar with the names).  I’m not saying don’t try.  It’s not the point I’m trying to make at all.  We truly have the power to accomplish great things when we work hard, believe in ourselves and go after our goals.  However, I AM saying be realistic.  Focus on self improvement in a way that’s healthy and productive, not self destructive.  Not everyone’s “end-all/be-all” is to be a Pro in the physique sports or a crossfit games competitor, and that’s OK.  Try to be the best YOU that you can be.  Learn to listen to your body.  Learn to work WITH your body, not against it. And always keep your health as top priority. Learning your “genetics” is a process, but the outcomes will be well worth it.

The solution is NOT another diet

So its been awhile since I’ve written, I’ve had a million and a half things going on, including an exciting move and job change, amongst other things. But with the New Year upon us and resolutions in full effect, I’m feeling it very necessary to write this post.

Your solution for happiness is NOT another diet. It’s not another fad, or cleanse, or diet pill, or Dr. Oz miracle product or any other promise of rapid weight loss and a “new you.”

In my experience, this is one of the hardest concepts to truly internalize. We all want the quick fix, because we believe that weight loss will be the key to our happiness. The paradox is, in order to truly be happy and healthy we must already accept ourselves. If you are unhappy, weight loss in and of itself will NOT bring happiness.

In other words, if you’re dieting or exercising to lose weight because you hate your body and you believe that when you finally lose weight THEN you will be happy, you will not get the outcomes you’re looking for. It does NOT work that way. In order to become healthy you need to focus on being happy NOW.

You must learn to disassociate weight and food from your self esteem and happiness. Find worth within yourself regardless of your weight and regardless of what food you choose to eat and believe in that worth with all your heart.

So how do we go about doing that? I think one of the first steps is to let go of the dieting mentality. The fact is: Diets fail. And in turn they have this way of making people feel like they’ve failed. People do not fail, diets fail.

One of the inherent flaws in the concept of diets is the “on or off” mentality. We’re either “on” the diet or we’re “off.” When we’re on, we’re severely restrictive with food choices, to a point where it becomes impossible to maintain. Many of us start out with good intentions and strong wills but we have the unrealistic expectation that this level of restrictive eating is maintainable. And then we quickly find out, it is not. And then we go “off” the diet, and boy do we go off. Typically we go “off” out diets and head straight for the opposite extreme, binge eating and consuming large amounts of foods we would not even normally consume, just because we’re “off” the diet and we can. And then any weight loss achieved with the initial restrictive period is usually gained back and then some. And then the cycle starts over.

I myself am guilty of planning shows (fitness competition) in an effort to force myself to diet to get back into what I considered acceptable shape for the fitness industry. I was one of those competitors that dieted 100% strictly for weeks and months on end, only to rebound pretty significantly in a short amount of time following my competition season. This would lead to very poor self image and of course, the inevitable plan to start dieting again. And unfortunately, I was very competitive, and would end up taking it to the extreme again to get in shape for the next show. And the cycle would continue.

Its only more recently that I’ve realized how destructive this behavior is. And the mentality is really no different than the yo-yo dieter.

So no dieting. But then you may ask, so how do I lose weight/get in shape/get healthy? First of all, let me start by saying weight loss does not equate to health (nor happiness, as I’ve mentioned above) but I’ll save that for another post.

If you’re doing a contest prep, of course that requires some form of structured eating. But my advice is to maintain a healthy, well balanced approach, as much as possible. Continue to include all food groups throughout the entirety of the prep and give yourself plenty of time to achieve the level of leanness you’re aiming for. And most importantly, approach a competition prep with the right mindset. Always keep the perspective that “competition lean” is not necessarily “healthy, real life lean.” Be prepared for a normal amount of healthy weight gain after your show and be prepared for the emotional rebound that can occur in the post-show period. Understand what’s realistic and what’s not, and always keep your health as top priority.

And before even starting a competition prep take the time to really evaluate whether or not you are physically and emotionally ready to take on all that the competition prep and the post competition period can entail. And if you’re not sure you can handle it, then DON’T do it. There is absolutely no shame in deciding NOT to compete.

As for the rest of us that will not be getting ready for any physique type competitions in the near future, here’s some additional advice.

✓ Try to avoid classifying foods as good or bad. All food has a purpose. Some foods serve our health and some foods serve as enjoyment/fun. And realistically, its healthy to include a certain amount of both in our everyday lives.
✓ Try making small changes to your everyday habits. In order to be successful, you must approach health as a lifelong commitment, not a quick destination. Slow, manageable changes will produce longer lasting results than extreme restrictions. The key is to accept this truth and stop seeking the quick fix, it doesn’t exist.
✓ Focus on something other than food. Obsessing about what you eat and what you think you “should” be eating will only lead to unnecessary stress and often stress eating. Its counterintuitive, but often we relieve our food related stress by eating more food. So stop worrying so much about it and focus your attention on other, more fulfilling things.
✓ When it comes to nutrition, aim to consume more fresh, wholesome, natural foods as opposed to processed/packaged stuff. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store- fruits, vegetables, lean meats, dairy and whole grains. It doesn’t mean packaged stuff can’t be healthy too, but generally speaking the fewer ingredients the better. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate some of the more fun, processed foods into your daily eating.
✓ Try to consume SATISFYING meals and snacks. If you’re forcing yourself to eat foods because you think you “should,” or because you think they’re “healthy” but you don’t necessarily like them, you’re not going to get very far. Choose foods that you enjoy. There is always a “healthier” version of all your favorite foods. Look for recipes and experiment!
✓ Create balance- use all 3 macronutrients at meals- carbs, proteins and fats. Do NOT eliminate whole food groups for the sake of weight loss.
✓ And most importantly, work on your own body image and outlook. Let go of the diet mentality. Break the cycle. Learn to love and accept your body for what it is and what it can do. Your self worth is NOT tied to how you look or what you eat. You deserve better than that, so treat yourself accordingly.

Stay True to Your Beliefs- Why I Decided to Drop Out of the 1stPhorm Athlete Search

I haven’t been posting as much on social media lately, and there’s a few reasons for that, but the major one is that I’m coming to realize that the message I’ve been sending out is not quite the one I’m intending to promote. Let me preface this by saying that I have no issue with 1stphorm or their contest. As a brand and as a movement they have inspired and motivated hundreds of thousands of people and I support that. My issue lies within myself. In trying to promote myself to win a contest, I’ve lost sight of what I truly believe in and what truly matters to me. In aligning my message with what I thought would win, I’ve lost sight of promoting MY true message, the one that comes from my heart.

Do I believe in hard work, of course. Do I believe in giving it your all, absolutely. Do I believe in accomplishing your goal at all costs regardless of the toll it takes on your body, mind and life as a whole? No. And honestly I think a lot of the fitness industry via social media has been promoting that mentality- obsession.

Being obsessed with eating healthy and working out, at the expense of everything else in your life, is not in fact “healthy.” Being obsessed with how you look is not healthy. Being obsessed with doing “whatever it takes” and going to extremes to be “great” or to look a certain way is not healthy.

Obsession is not healthy.

But unfortunately, in my opinion, the majority of the fitness industry is promoting a message of obsession with diet and training, of extremes, of doing whatever it takes or else you’re a failure. And I no longer want to be a part of that message.

I used to be one of those fitness obsessed people. Quite frankly, I probably worked harder and more intensely at it than the majority of people out there. I turned pro in my second show, I competed at the Olympia in my first year as a pro. I was invited to compete in two Arnold Classic Fitness Internationals, I was sponsored by a major supplement company. I was ambitious, I did whatever it took, I was dedicated, disciplined, obsessed. I worked harder than most could dream of and I wasn’t going to stop until I was THE BEST. And you know what, I was absolutely miserable. It was NOT, in any way, shape or form, a healthy way to live. It did not create a healthy body or a healthy mindset. It gave me an outlet to channel my poor body image and to trick my mind into believing that I was successful because I was working hard and being 100% disciplined and pushing myself through no matter what. In reality, I was incredibly unhealthy both mentally and physically. I developed an injury that pretty much put an end to my career. I developed reproductive and thyroid issues. I isolated myself from family and friends. And I developed a severely distorted view of my body which lead to severely distorted eating habits.

When I returned to the stage in 2013 I vowed to do it the right way. With balance. With self confidence. With love and respect for my body and mind. Both on and off season. And I also vowed that this was the message I would promote to those that looked up to me. And I think in participating in this contest, I’ve lost sight of that a little bit.

The fact is, I whole heartedly believe that you can achieve great things in your life without becoming “obsessed.” I know because I’ve done it- I’ve done it both ways. Letting something consume your whole life is not healthy. As someone who’s “been there, done that” with that mentality, I just cannot go on promoting it, knowing all the damage it can cause and knowing that it’s just not necessary.

The images we see on social media are not real life. Realistically, the majority of these insta famous fitness icons are not the true picture of what is healthy. I certainly wasn’t. Although I was damn good at making everyone think I was.

In fact, by “fitness industry standards” right now I’m considered FAT. By fitness industry standards right now I’m “out of shape.”

The truth is, I’m not fat and I’m not out of shape. I’m far from it. I’m focusing on other things in my life and not spending as much time in the gym or “food prepping,” and you know what? That’s OK. I’m OK with it. But 5 years ago, back when I was “great,” I wouldn’t have been caught dead posting pictures at my current weight. I would have been terrified of what people thought. It’s really an absurd concept if you think about. WHAT KIND OF MESSAGE IS THIS PROMOTING?? I’ll tell you what message it’s sending- an unrealistic one that promotes poor body image. And it’s no better than the photo shopped “too skinny” cover models that everyone gets all up in arms about.

I believe people should work hard toward their goals, believe in themselves and give their all. But I cannot support this “get it done at all costs” philosophy because I just don’t believe in it. I lived it. And it damn near ruined my life. And I’ve since changed my approach, and done things the healthy, balanced, non-obsessed way- successfully.

I workout because I love my body. I eat healthy because I want to nourish my body not because I think I need to change it. I compete to see what my body and mind are capable of, not because I dislike how I look and I feel like I need to get in shape.

It took me a really long time to come to that realization. It took me a really long time to accept my body, my structure, my flaws. It took me a really long time to be proud of what my body is capable of and not just obsessed with how it looks. And it took me a really long time to realize that doing whatever it takes to be “great” is a good way to ruin my health and my happiness.

I want to promote a message of self confidence. A message of respect for your body, mind and soul. A message of kindness toward yourself. I’d like to inspire others to be well rounded, to be real, to be grounded, to encourage others. ENJOY YOUR LIFE. Be motivated, be dedicated, but never lose sight of the big picture. Stop trying to live up to the insta famous fitness model. That’s not real life. That’s not YOUR life.

Workout because you love your body. Eat well because you love your body. And always remember that you do not have to go to unhealthy extremes to accomplish what you want.

I don’t know what the future holds for me but I do know that moving forward, my message will be more clear. I don’t want people to look up to me because of how I used to look and what I’ve accomplished in the past, because the mindset and methods used to get there were far from healthy. I want to inspire people to do things the right way, respect their bodies, maintain a healthy mind and spirit, maintain balance, recognize obsession, BE HEALTHY! Personally, I want to be fit, healthy, HAPPY…
And should I ever be blessed with the opportunity to compete again, I am certain that I will be successful doing it my way.

How to Build a Basic Meal Plan (in 8 somewhat simple steps)

Many of you may be wanting to develop a more structured eating plan, but perhaps for whatever reason, are not ready to hire someone else to do it. If that’s the case, follow these 8 steps to put together your own plan!

Step 1-
Determine your goal. Is your goal for muscle gain? Is your goal for fat loss? Is your goal for maintenance/healthy nutrition? Whatever it may be, your nutrition plan needs to start with a goal in mind.

Step 2-
Determine a calorie level appropriate for your goal. There are a lot of websites that will calculate an estimated BMR (basal metabolic rate) to which you can adjust based on your activity level and goal (most of the website tools can do this as well). If you don’t want to use one of those tools, the simplest way to begin is to multiply your body weight by a factor of 10-15.
Typically, I would start with calories of ~12x body weight for fat loss and ~ 15 x body weights for muscle gain. These numbers can then be adjusted based on your progress.
For example, for a 150lb female looking for fat loss, I would start at about 1800 calories per day (150lbs x 12). This is not an exact science, and as mentioned, you can make adjustments as you go along.
**If you are much heavier than your target weight (50+ pounds), you may need to use a weight closer to your target weight for these calculations

Step 3-
Make a list of healthy foods you enjoy, group them into categories based on their main macronutrient composition.
For example, I like chicken, turkey, steak, sweet potato, rice, oatmeal, peanut butter and avocados. So I would list:
Proteins: Chicken, turkey, etc.
Carbs: sweet potato, brown rice, etc.
Fats: avocado, peanut butter, etc.
Now many of these foods will, of course, contain more than one macronutrient, but most foods can be categorized by the macronutrient they are mainly composed of.

Step 4-
Determine how many meals you would like to eat per day (that’s an easy step, no further explanation needed).

Step 5-
Determine the proportion of calories you would like to come from each macronutrient group. I feel the best place to start is around 1g of protein per pound of body weight (*again, use a weight closer to your target weight if you are 50+ lbs overweight).
Multiple the protein grams by 4 (4 calories per gram of protein) to get the calories you will be consuming from protein. This will roughly give you 25-35% of your calories from protein. The rest will come from carbohydrates and fats. Typically fats can comprise ~25-35% of your total calories. And then carbs would make up the rest.

OK, so that was a little confusing, but take a look at the example here and it should help to clarify:
150 lb female looking for fat loss.
Total calories = 12x bodyweight (150lbs)= 1800 kcals
Total protein= 1x body weight = 150 grams
150grams of protein x 4 calories per gram= 600 calories from protein
1800 total calories x .25 (25%) = 450 calories from fats
450 calories divided by 9 (9 calories per gram of fat) = 50 grams per day
1800 total calories – 600 calories from protein – 450 calories from fat = 750 calories left (these will then come from carbohydrates)
750 calories from carbs divided by 4 (4 calories per gram of carbohydrate) = 188g carb
So, our meal plan for a 150 lb female looking for fat loss would have
~1800 calories, 150g Protein, 188g Carbs, 50g Fat
I promise you, if you just work through the numbers, its not as complicated as it looks!

Step 6-
Distribute the calories/macros amongst your meals. Try to evenly distribute protein amongst each meal (i.e. each meal should have an equivalent amount of protein). Typically, I like to include my carbs in breakfast, lunch and post-workout meals, but in theory, you could evenly spread them throughout all of your meals or even eat them in just the pre and post workout meals if you prefer. Similarly, fats can be divided into your non-carb meals, or evenly spaced throughout the day- however you prefer.

Step 7-
Start plugging foods from your list into the meal plan. Again, there are many websites available to give nutrition facts for most foods. Although this may seem tedious at first, if you eat similar things most days, it would not be too difficult to get a handle on the composition of those foods. I typically like to allow 1-3 options per meal—for example- 3.5oz of chicken or 1 scoop whey protein or 6 egg whites all have roughly the same amount of protein. You can use the same concept with carbs and fats.

Step 8
Monitor your progress and adjust accordingly. Whatever your goal is, you should give yourself a solid 2-4 weeks on any given meal plan and keep measure of your progress. Avoid adjusting things too soon just because, for example, you didn’t lose 2 lbs. the first week. Allow your body to settle in to the new meal plan and then make adjustments as needed. Usually this will lead to results with just a few small tweaks instead of a complete overhaul.

As you’re progressing, you can begin to manipulate both calorie levels and macronutrient levels depending on your goals. You can also make adjustments based on if/what you are training on any particular day.

As a side note- this is not an IIFYM plan, as I do not believe all calories are created equal, and thus I would encourage your food list to consist mostly of quality, nutritious, single (or very few) ingredient foods.

The question on implants- making the decision

So this is not the most PC topic to discuss but I think it’s worth bringing up, because let’s face it, it’s a reality in the fitness industry and especially the physique sports (figure, fitness, bikini, etc-).
So ladies, the question is… To get implants or to not get implants?

Here’s my take…

When I first turned pro, I was told… (yes, flat out told, by a “higher up” in the industry)… that in order to do well as a Pro, I would need to get implants.

And guess what. As a Pro, WITHOUT implants, I placed as high as 2nd in a pro show, qualified to the Olympia and competed in 2 Arnold’s. Although implants were something I’d considered for personal reasons, at that time I thought I’ll be damned if I ever let some guy tell me I need implants to compete in a sport. F-THAT.

But here I am now with implants, so let me explain.

I have been flat as board for my entire life. It had nothing to do with training, I’m just not genetically well endowed in that area. And to be 100% honest, it was always something I was self conscious about. I got teased about it in middle school and high school, and for me it was just something I was always uncomfortable with.
Should you love your body unconditionally? Yes of course. But if there is something about your body that you are not comfortable with and you have the power and means to change it, and if doing so improves how you feel about yourself and boosts your self esteem… Then do it.

I actually got my implants done during my “retirement” from competing. At the time, I had absolutely no intention of ever competing again… It wasn’t even a thought in my mind.
I had the means to have them done, and I decided I wanted to do something FOR ME. And so I did.

Do I regret it? NOT ONE TINY BIT. It was quite possibly one of the best investments I’ve ever made. I am MUCH more comfortable with my body now and I feel much more feminine. I don’t have a naturally “curvy” or feminine figure, and for me, they make a tremendous difference in that aspect. Personally, I didn’t go huge, I went from a small A to a large C/small D, and I think they look very appropriate for my body type. And to be honest, I don’t really care what anyone else thinks about them, because they’re mine and they make me happy.

So how do you decide whether or not it’s right for you?
Ask yourself this: Am I doing this for me, or am I doing this for a better placing at my show? If the answer is the latter, DON’T DO IT. Getting huge boobs is not going to get you your pro card. So if that’s your motivation, forget it. The judges see huge boobs on 90% of competitors, they’re not going to make you stand out and they’re not going to win you first place. And even if they do, who cares, if you’re not happy with yourself then it’s not even worth it.

Make the decision FOR YOU. Not for anyone else. Not for your boyfriend, or for competition, or for more instagram followers.
But if deep down you feel like changing that part of your body will truly improve your self esteem and how you feel about yourself, then go for it. I did, and I PLACED THE WORST I EVER HAVE AS A PRO. And I still consider them the best decision I ever made for my self esteem 🙂

How To Recover from a Bad Day

As a registered dietitian, I don’t believe in ‘good’ foods or ‘bad’ foods, I believe all foods can serve a purpose. I try to encourage my patients and clients that are looking to achieve a healthy lifestyle to choose fresh, unprocessed, natural foods ‘most of the time.’ On the other hand, as a pro fitness athlete I understand that there are foods that will help reach you goals and there are foods that will not. And I encourage those athletes with a deadline (competition, photoshoot, show, etc) to choose the right foods ‘all of the time’ – especially if that deadline is within the next six weeks (off season athletes refer to the first recommendation).

Regardless of which category you fall into, there may come a time when you have a ‘bad’ meal or even a ‘bad’ day, whether by choice or by life circumstances. It happens to all of us. And in all honesty, a single bad meal or even an entire day should not be enough to completely derail your efforts. How you recover from such a day though, can make the difference between continuing to move forward toward your goal or taking several steps backwards.
So here are some strategies for recovering from those ‘bad days’-

1. Don’t delay getting back on track. Often one cookie turns into 10, one meal turns into a whole day, and one day turns into a week. Don’t let that happen. Make a conscious decision to stop. Turn it around, and get back on track. No procrastinating!

2. Avoid compensation cardio, cleanses, crazy diets, etc. There is no need to punish yourself for overindulging. All this will really do is mess up your metabolism and water balance even more, and it will create a negative mindset. So don’t do it. Get back to your normal meal plan and your normal workout schedule.

3. Drink lots and lots of water!! This will help get rid of any sodium or carbohydrate bloat. Additionally, if you had a drink (or 10), you’re likely dehydrated, so make sure to get that water in.

4. Try to avoid processed carbs and high sodium foods. Typically I’m not one to recommend a sodium restricted diet for athletes however if you’re sodium sensitive and already retaining water from yesterday’s food fest, you may benefit from just cutting back a little bit. And if nothing else, just stay away from the processed stuff.
– as an addition to #4, if you do tend to retain a lot of water you can try to include some foods with natural diuretic properties such as grapefruit, asparagus, cucumber or fresh squeezed lemon in your water.

5. Try adding a probiotic and a good multivitamin. Probiotics can help aid with digestion and healthy bowel function which may be necessary after eating foods your system is not used to. Furthermore, most metabolic processes rely on vitamins and minerals as cofactors so a good multivitamin can help boost your body’s ability to handle/metabolize the excess food. Antioxidants can also help rid the body of oxidative stress brought on by poor food choices.

6. And finally, and most importantly, let it go. Move on. Do not dwell on yesterday’s decisions. Do not waste time beating yourself up about what you did or did not eat. Don’t get on the scale for a few days because odds are you’ll have gained some water weight (and that number may be enough to freak some people out) Focus on what you are going to do now. You have the choice to keep moving forward toward your goal or to let it hold you back. Choose to move forward!!

The Fit Life on Vacation

Today’s blog post comes to you straight from the sunny beach of Aruba. Many competitors and fitness minded people have a hard time ‘being on vacation.’ We want to enjoy our time but struggle to find the balance between our fitness goals and our fun. Well, being that I’m on vacation, and I’m enjoying every minute of it while still maintaining a fit lifestyle, it seems only fitting for me to write a quick blog about how you too can enjoy a vacation while still staying fit.

Let me preface this by saying that if you’re within about 4-6 weeks of a physique type competition, this does not apply to you. But if you’re more than 6 weeks out or just trying to get/stay fit, then listen up.

1. Be active.
Personally, I truly enjoy working out, and I enjoy a variety of different activities, so this part is easy. Most hotels have some type of gym, so use it! But even if you don’t have access to a gym it doesn’t mean you can’t get a workout in. You can always bring a resistance band with you or create a circuit of some body weight exercises (push ups, sit ups, lunges, air squats, etc). Additionally, find some ‘vacation activities’ to keep you moving. Bike riding, stand up paddle boarding, walking or jogging on the beach, hiking…You don’t necessarily have to stick to your gym routine to be active, after all, you’re on vacation, so do something you enjoy!

2. Keep some healthy foods/snacks on hand.
If you’re lucky enough to have a refrigerator in the room you can even go grocery shopping for some fresh foods. We have a nice kitchen here, so we buy groceries and typically eat a healthy breakfast and lunch in the room and then enjoy a nice dinner out. Additionally, I’ll pack tuna, beef/turkey jerky, nuts and protein powder/bars just in case.

3. Enjoy local cuisine.
Fresh, local cuisine will typically be pretty clean (just watch out for the fried or processed stuff). Try to enjoy some of the culture of wherever you are vacationing- that’s part of the whole experience. Here in Aruba there are dozens of restaurants that serve fresh seafood and its delicious!

4. Ditch the guilt (and the tupper wares)!
You’re on vacation. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy the food, have a drink or two, have dessert if you want and don’t stress about it!! As long as the majority of your choices are healthy, a few indulgences will not throw you totally off track.

I think the biggest key is to get away from the “on or off” a diet mentality. A fit and healthy lifestyle is just that, it’s a lifestyle. It means working out and eating healthy foods are part of your life, and thus it would be no different while on vacation. Continue to make reasonable choices, maintain balance, and fully enjoy the time with your loved ones. Vacations are special occasions so make sure you take it all in.
I know I sure am!