I knew there was a problem when I almost passed out in my dorm room. That whole week I just could not get through my workouts and I was getting so frustrated at how exhausted I felt after only a few minutes. I wasn't getting the full 90 minutes in that I had been for the past few months and I just could not understand why. I decided to sit down and eat my breakfast—an apple with one tablespoon of peanut butter. I really thought this would give me the energy I needed to power through, but when I tried to get back into my workout I felt a certain kind of sick that I had never experienced before. My head was pounding, my heart was racing and I had to lie down. Is this because of my clean eating? 

grass, pasture
Eleanor Kelly

That's when I decided to do some calculations to see what could be wrong. I took out all of my nutrition notes from class and eventually found the problem. On average, I was eating at, or just under, the amount of calories necessary for my basal metabolic rate. Your BMR is the amount of calories that your body needs each day if all you were doing is resting. This means that if you were to work out for nearly two hours each day for six days a week, you would need to intake hundreds of more calories every day simply to keep your body functioning properly.

Looking at my activity level alongside my diet, I probably should have been eating between 500 and 700 calories more each day than I had been...for months. But I just couldn't wrap my head around it—I thought I was eating so healthy. I was eating lean protein, only complex carbs, and tons of fruits and vegetables, all the "good" food I’ve been told to eat growing up. I'd look to fitness Instagram accounts for inspiration, always avoiding the "bad" foods that we're only supposed to eat on "cheat days". I was "eating clean."

This mentality of “good” versus “bad” food is what led to my distorted ideas of what to eat. It heavily impacted my eating behaviors and also altered my perception of my own health. Nearly every fitness blog or website that I followed encouraged cheat days. This meant allowing myself, for one day each week, to eat “bad” or something other than complex carbs, lean protein, and greens.

Even though I followed these Fitstagrams and tried to take up some of their habits in my own life, I overlooked some very important details. I didn’t take into account the major differences between myself and these fitness gurus with years of experience. All I saw were enviable bodies, short clips of their workouts, and a small portion of what they were eating throughout the day. I never saw how their health and fitness journeys started from day one. I didn't see time it took them to get to that point of fitness, or the years it may have taken for them to understand their own bodies. I got caught up in these snapshots of their journeys, instead of focusing on understanding my own body.

Even when I did convince myself that it was okay to eat something not considered to be "clean eating", I would fixate on this idea of "getting rid of it" during my next workout, as if somehow working off whatever would counteract my eating it.

Obviously that is not how the human body works, but thought processes such as this are common when it comes to having an unhealthy relationship with food. Reflecting our food choices on our characters can be toxic, leading us to congratulate ourselves when we eat a salad and shame ourselves when we get fries instead. I would constantly justify eating something unhealthy by thinking of whatever workout I had done or would later do to “deserve it”. This kind of thinking falls in line with orthorexia nervosa, a currently unofficial diagnosis that is described to be an “'unhealthy obsession' with otherwise healthy eating" by the National Eating Disorders Association.

cheese, bacon, pizza, chicken
Eleanor Kelly

I was not misinformed about healthy versus unhealthy foods. Yes, we should be eating more greens instead of processed foods, but we should not shame ourselves for what we eat. It has been an uphill battle trying to rebuild my relationship with food, and every day presents its own challenges. I still love eating with health in mind and I’ve started working out again, but I do have to distance myself from the gym from time to time to keep from falling back into old habits. What I’ve learned is that nothing feels better than knowing that I’m taking strides in understanding and respecting my body more than I ever have before. And part of that comes from knowing that despite the saying, I am not what I eat.