Mind & Body

Journey from Junk Food Junkie to Vegan Health Nut

Woman selects apples at the farmer's market

Scrolling through Pinterest searching healthy, gluten-free, vegan, refined sugar-free, baking– I begin to question my life choices.

“No I can’t make that.” I think as I look at a recipe that calls for eggs. “Ooh a whole cup of coconut sugar in that cookie recipe; is that too much to be healthy?”

I ponder these recipes and remember fondly the freedom of baking ten years ago. A sophomore in high school, I loved to bake decadent chocolate cakes for my friends’ birthdays and to decorate elaborate sugar cookies with my sister for Christmas. My journey from then to now is one that many people today can relate to, a struggle to reign in bad habits and make healthy choices.

Growing up and throughout college, I was always super skinny with next to no effort. My food choices were made almost entirely on convenience and taste. My superlative senior year was “Most likely to eat a 1 lb bag of M&M’s and still be able to belly dance” – yes, that was my actual superlative, yes, I ate 1 lb bags of M&M’s (and Reese’s pieces) all the time, yes, I was a killer belly dancer. It horrifies me now to try and quantify the amount of sugar I consumed over those years, downing cans of Dr. Perky (my off brand Dr. Pepper of choice) by the case and eating candy like everyday was Halloween.

Although my sister was an athlete, I despised exercise and spent most of my free time lounging with a good book or playing hours of video games. I would dread the annual fitness test in gym class where my poor fitness level was on display. I’d finish the required one mile run red faced with exhaustion and embarrassment.

In college, stereotypically broke, I would scrounge change from my car’s center console to buy dinner off the Wendy’s value menu. On road trips, I would plan pit stops at Taco Bells to purchase 30 oz cups of Baja Blast mountain dew.

The other shoe dropped after moving out of my parent’s house (and across the country) at 23. My metabolism finally caught up to me, and I started putting on weight with each late night ice cream run and take-out pad thai. I could see the path I was on, and I knew I needed to make some major changes.

Being the kind of person with an all or nothing mentality, I read up on all of the healthy lifestyle blogs and articles I could find and implemented many changes: no refined sugar, whole foods only, a plant based diet, weight training, running, a regular sleep schedule, no binge drinking, no high-calorie drinks… The pounds came off fast, and I felt amazing.

Now I’m in the best shape of my life. I often feel like I didn’t even know what I was missing back in my junk food hey-day. By cutting out refined sugars, I opened myself up to the wonderful flavors found in fruits and vegetables. With no hesitation, I will happily eat a banana over a cupcake any day.

I now fully understand the beauty of the runner’s high, and have bonded with my sister over our shared love for running. I feel so proud of the ways my body can move: the weight I can lift, the mountains I can climb.

But there is a darkside to my new lifestyle.  The thought of being healthy consumes my mind. It feels like I’m on a hamster wheel of healthy decision making. I finish breakfast and think, “Was that enough calories to make it through my hard hitting workout?  When will my next snack be? Is there enough protein in the lunch I have planned? Will the restaurant I’m going to have gluten-free and healthy options?”

I wonder what filled my mind before this. It’s hard to remember obsessing so much about anything in my past. I feel like I’ve lost my ability to be present and trust in the way my body feels and responds to the world.

I have a catalog of portion sizes and calorie counts memorized in my mind. If I’m feeling crappy and skip a workout, I start to question my choice immediately. Do I actually need to take a rest day today, or am I just being lazy? I shame myself for every slow run and begrudge myself for any food indulgence. I’ve soaked in society’s message that I must be fit and thin and beyond perfect – a message that is broadcast to all women. Although I know this ideal is unattainable it’s hard to let go of trying endlessly to fulfill that image. I fear backsliding into old habits and losing my new fit form.

My healthy lifestyle is one that I’m proud of, and I truly believe it will help me live a longer and healthier life, but I miss those carefree days of my past. It’s strange how an increase in self-discipline has come with such a large helping of shame.

So now I’m on a new journey. How do I maintain a healthy lifestyle and weight without shaming myself for every misstep? The first step is trying to be aware when the thoughts begin and to respond to my obsessing and anxiety with compassionate words.

A list of self talk strategies

By practicing compassion for myself, I will slowly train my mind to naturally respond in a more loving way. I think about the way I would respond to a friend who was doubting themselves and criticizing their choices, and I try to apply this same level of empathy and care to myself. This sounds so much easier than it is; I will admit that the voice of love has been much quieter than the critic for awhile now. I remind myself that this is a process and that self-love is built through practice.

As it took me several months to work up to running a 5k, so too,  it may take me a long time to work up to a healthy mindset. In the meantime, I am trying to be more open about the mixed bag that has been my journey to this point. Perhaps others will be able to relate, with their own dark side to what on the surface appears to be only positive changes.

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