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'A Registered Dietitian Changed My Life'

How She Changed the Way I Viewed Food--and Everything Else
  -- By Jennipher Walters, Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Instructor
As a certified personal trainer, group exercise instructor and fitness writer, I know a lot about exercise and quite a bit about nutrition. I know what it takes to lose weight, be healthy and fuel my body properly. But for years I didn't practice what I preached.

I spent years in college and shortly thereafter working out way too much, succumbing to the pressures of fitting in and trying to excel in a career where what you look like determines your skill and professionalism in the eyes of many. And all of the extreme exercise sessions (teaching multiple group fitness classes every day of the week, usually in addition to my own workouts) plus some major life changes, spiraled negatively into my eating as well. I was desperately trying to avoid the "freshman (and sophomore, junior and senior) 15" that so many warn of, and was religiously counting my calories. I was strict about keeping my caloric intake very low, even though I was easily burning thousands of calories a day by exercising.

It was a dangerous cycle. The workouts would leave me ravenous. And while I could ignore the hunger or control it for awhile, over the course of a few days, it became too strong to withstand. The hunger consumed me, and before I knew it, I was gorging on healthy and unhealthy foods alike—in unhealthy proportions: half a big bag of trail mix while writing a paper, two Pop Tarts after I was already stuffed from eating an oversized salad at lunch, a fried chicken sandwich and fries scarfed down in secret. The hunger from the extreme workouts plus the severe food restrictions pushed me to binge on foods like I never had before. Sure, I'd overeaten from time to time, but I quickly became obsessed with food and working out, and soon started using food as a way to deal with boredom, stress and sadness.

The worst part, is that I knew how bad this was for me. I was so ashamed that I was doing it, and I knew better. I would never in a million years sit back and watch as a client or friend exercised too much, ate too little, and binged uncontrollably. It wasn't until just months before my wedding, that I said enough was enough: I knew that I could no longer continue living this way. I started meditating and journaling (which helped some) and then I took one of the best steps of my life: I found a registered dietitian (RD) who specialized in disordered eating.

I had long known about RDs and how they help people with all kinds of needs—from helping people with diabetes manage their insulin levels through dietary changes, to showing clients how to fuel their workouts or eat for weight loss, to purely educating people on what foods are healthy. As a fitness professional, I had always touted the benefits of meeting with an RD; funny though that I had never been myself. <pagebreak>

This RD blew me away. Her tactics included therapy as well as education. She asked me a series of questions—not about what I ate or how much—but rather, how I felt. Was I hungry when eating? Full? Did I eat at normal times? Did I taste the food? Was I upset? I always knew deep down that I was eating out of emotion or severe fatigue, but it never dawned on me that I rarely listened to my hunger or honored it. In fact, I often ignored my hunger completely and ate on a very strict schedule where hunger and fullness weren't even factors.

When it came to hunger, my body and mind were completely out of whack. In fact, my RD told me that I didn't know what hunger was at all. So, under my RD's care, I started a hunger log where I checked in every hour to see on a scale of 1 to 10 how hungry or full I was. My goal was to eat when I was a 6 or 7 and stop when I was at a 7 or 8 on the full scale. At the onset, I thought this would be pretty easy to do, but it took me weeks to figure out what the numbers meant to me and my belly. Figuring out how hungry was "too hungry," and how full was "too full" or "not full enough" were things that I had to relearn. My RD was also brilliant at getting to refocus my life on what really mattered instead of calories and my imperfections. She even helped me schedule off days from working out and helped me to see that spending too many hours in the gym was doing more harm than good.

On my wedding day, a few months after our sessions began, I felt more confident and beautiful than I ever had. I now have the tools to recognize when I'm becoming out of balance with my workouts and my eating, and I have coping mechanisms to better deal with these things (just stopping and breathing does wonders!). I still slip up from time to time, but I don't beat myself up about it. I focus on being healthy, happy and as balanced as I can be. And then the rest just works itself out. Below are a few others things I learned during the process that can help you on your journey. <pagebreak>

  1. Improve your relationship with yourself. Start actively listening to how you talk to yourself. If you don't talk to yourself like you'd talk to your best friend, correct that—pronto.

  2. Be kind with your time. My RD once said, "Imagine what you could have done in all of the time you've spent worrying about your weight and your workouts. Think of what you could have done instead with your energy." Talk about an aha moment!

  3. Stay in balance. We all have so many roles to fill, things to do and pressures around us. Life truly is a balancing act, so try not to let any single thing become too dominant.

  4. Forget perfection. Perfection is totally unattainable, and you'll make yourself miserable striving for it. Commit to loving yourself as you are right now.

  5. Enjoy life. Sometimes we get so caught up thinking that we'll be happier when we lose weight or when we do this or that, that we forget about how wonderful things are or how lucky we are already. We should eat and move to celebrate life, not punish ourselves.

If you're having any issues similar to mine, I highly encourage you to visit EatRight.org and search for an RD in your area who specializes in emotional or disordered eating. And even if you have no signs of disordered eating, I still encourage you to meet with an RD. The experience is usually fascinating! RDs hold a bachelor's degree (or higher) in nutrition or dietetics, have passed a national exam, and are required to regularly complete continuing education. Just like any professional relationship though, it's important to feel comfortable opening up and being honest with your RD, so I encourage you to call or email him or her first. Whether you have emotional or disordered issues with food, need to better learn how to eat to manage your weight or health issues, or simply want to learn better dietary habits, going to an RD can be enlightening. It certainly changed my life for the better!