The first time someone told me carbs were "bad" was in 1995. I was a slim, inactive 21-year-old living in Pittsburgh, PA who was more obsessed with rock music and bar stools than running and working out. I had an older boyfriend who told me that I shouldn't be eating carbs because "carbs make you fat." I wasn't overweight or dieting but this piece of advice stuck with me and I started eating low-carb cookies by the box. (The funny part is that I'm not sure I ever ate cookies in the first place, I went from not eating cookies at all to eating low-carb cookies.)
I didn't understand the difference between processed food and quality nutrient-rich foods but I was young and had a forgiving metabolism so I never outwardly experienced any negative effects from my diet change. I just thought I was eating healthier. No harm no foul, except I wasn't any closer to learning how to fuel my body.
Then a few years later I moved to Dallas, TX and dietary fat was the public enemy at the time. I was a little older, still into live music, still slim, still not working out, but definitely more diet conscious. I remember going to a party that was serving a mayonnaise-based potato salad. I looked at the box and was horrified by the 10 grams of fat per serving. "I am not eating that," I declared. Not because it was a low-nutrient processed food from a box, but because it had an evil 10 grams of fat. I would eat Subway lunchmeat sandwiches with low-fat chips and a Diet Coke and pat myself on the pack for my healthy lunch because back then I thought that dietary fat must make you fat.
I was still making poor nutrition choices that I thought were healthy but was not any closer to understanding how to feed myself for optimal health. I was making mistakes, but I didn't know it, so I wasn't learning from them...yet.
Things started to change for me as I approached my late twenties. I was in a serious long-term relationship (with my now husband) and I went from working an active retail job to a sedentary desk job. My lifestyle was changing and the forgiving metabolism of my youth was becoming more stubborn. I gained at least twenty pounds the first time. My unhealthy inactive lifestyle was catching up with me and my poor understanding of eating healthy wasn't cutting it anymore.
I started running because I heard running was the fastest way to lose weight. I went on extremely low-calorie diets, cut carbs and fats and after a few more years started hearing about the clean-eating movement. After all this confusion, I thought that clean-eating was finally the answer to my weight problem. It made a lot of sense, only eat 'clean' foods. Except there was some confusion about what eating 'clean' even meant. Some would say clean eating meant no processed foods or no animal products, others would say no potatoes or legumes. Others would say it had to be organic to be clean. Could I have rice? Let's not, just in case. What's left?
I took 'clean eating' too far and started my experience with extreme dieting and over-exercising. I'd run a lot and 'eat clean', then lose 15 pounds, but eventually fall off the diet wagon and gain back 20. I went back and forth like this for years, more often than I care to admit. I can often look back at pictures and easily pinpoint the year based on if I was slim or overweight. One year up, one year down. It went on and on. Each year my weight went up a little higher.
Finally, after years of struggling with my weight, I learned what worked best for me and lost the weight once and for all. My weight loss journey was not linear (It rarely is). I had to learn a lot of lessons before I could keep the weight off because for me, losing the weight was always the easy part. It was keeping it off that was the hard part. Extreme dieting and over-exercising were sabotaging my weight loss journey because they were not sustainable behaviors.
It took me a long time to figure that balance, moderation and sustainable lifestyle changes were the answers for me. All those fad diets, cutting out major macronutrients, extreme workouts and deprivation/suffering for the goal always left me in a worse place than I started. I could suffer for six months to a year to reach a goal, but I always eventually fell off.
When I adjusted my lifestyle for moderation everything worked itself out over time. I learned to eat whole foods from nature most of the time but not to deprive myself of anything. I started lifting weights to maintain and build muscle (game changer) and ran/rested appropriately. I learned to fuel my body with nutrient-dense foods while still enjoying the pleasure of food with friends and family. Nothing was off-limits but I learned to be mindful. If I would swing too far in either direction, either too strict or too loose, I would work to bring myself back to the sustainable center. It's been a long journey, but a rewarding one.
I am grateful for those first twenty pounds that I gained because without them I never would have had the motivation to fall in love with running, nutrition, strength training and blogging. I would never have taken the time to learn about real healthful nutrition (because if I could have remained slim by eating low-carb cookies by the box, I probably would have). I would never have become a personal trainer or a running coach.
When I look back on my journey, I realize that I had to experience fad diets, extreme diets, and yo-yo weight loss in order to learn what would work for me. If someone would have told the 21-year-old-me that balance and moderation was the answer, I wouldn't have had the capacity to understand how that works in my life because I hadn't yet known the extremes. I had to learn from my mistakes, I had to experience the pain of weight gain and failure in order to grow in my understanding of proper nutrition.
It's interesting to see the diet trends and fads repeat themselves. When I see people making the same mistakes I made, I can't fault them, just like I couldn't be faulted back then. The media sends loud messages that are inaccurate or at best, misleading. There was no social media around when I began my journey, the messages are even louder today than they were back then.
We are often all in different places on the same path. We do the best we can until we know better, then we do better. There were many times along my journey that I thought I was making the best choices, but I was misinformed. It makes me step back and consider how I might be misinformed today. It never hurts to keep an open mind to the ideas and concepts you don't yet understand.
These days I look at everything with an eye for moderation and balance. The most important question for me is "Is it sustainable?" What's the diet demon these days? Sugar? While too much sugar is definitely not healthy, sugar in moderation works just fine in my lifestyle. For my nutrition knowledge, I don't read the latest diet books, watch food documentaries (they are usually one-sided and biased) or follow the latest nutrition fads online, but rather stick to trusted science-based knowledge sources (like Precision Nutrition).
There will always be a new popular diet, a new miracle weight loss drug or an extreme exercise program because those ideas will always make money. A lot of people spend their lives searching for the next quick fix, when the answer has been in front of them all along: Sane and sustainable lifestyle changes. Once I learned to ignore the media hype and follow sustainable, balanced and healthy eating and exercise habits, everything naturally fell into place.
I am grateful for my mistakes and my short-comings because if weight maintenance was effortless, I would never have learned the hard lessons that were necessary to become the healthiest, sanest version of me. I could ask you to read or share my story so others don't make the same mistakes that I did, because I spent more than a decade getting here, but often we have to make our own mistakes in order to learn from them.
I explored this topic a little further in an article I wrote called Why I Don't Eat Clean.
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