Wednesday 23 August 2017

Gustatory Demons + Exercise Addiction

This post is a long one, I'll tell you that now, and I'm not going to apologise for it. It's something I need to write, and I also feel I need to share. Because it's the dark side of trying to live a healthy life that anyone can succumb to if they let themselves start to obsess.

   I post a lot about exercise, but I don't talk much about food - or, more to the point, eating. Sure, I'll share product reviews of healthy snacks, I'll post recipes, and if you look in my crafting archive you'll find lots of not-so-healthy sweet treats. But, if I'm honest, I make them and I never eat them. I haven't for a very long time. Why? Because I'm terrified of carbs. And not just refined carbs. All carbs. I've demonised them, and it's ruining me.

   I've not seen a change in my body in over a year, regardless of what I put it through - PIIT28, Kettlercise, Jillian Michaels; the clean eating, the calorie counting. I read that we shouldn't consume less than 1250 calories a day, so for a long time I've used that as a bar. 100 calories more than that was fine. 200 was an indulgence.

   I'm sure all of this sounds really stupid, overly dramatic and so on, but it is something that consumes my every waking moment. I feel hungry sooner than I will allow myself to eat, like I had lunch 1 hour ago, regardless of how big or small it was, and because of the clock, I won't let myself eat for another hour, hour and a half. Because the clock says so. Never mind what my body's saying, because I don't want to eat too much, too often, or anything that might set me back. Because I put too much work and dedication into my exercise to let myself undo that work. Which is, to a degree, the problem. I put too much work and dedication into movement rather than sustaining myself. I want to lose lose lose, and keep it all off. Well, I am losing, but not in the way I want to.
   I'm writing this post as a confession, an admission to the world, and to myself, because I need to break this habit. I need to eat more.

   I work out very often. It's my preferred method of weight loss because lean muscle looks good, and because lean muscle increases metabolism, it means what fat you lose, you can keep off. But you need fuel for these workouts, and body fat alone won't do it. HIIT workouts combine intervals, resistance training and cardio, making them one of the most effective fat burning workouts you can do. So it's natural that you would think pairing a HIIT workout with a low-calorie, low-carb diet would be the most effective means of losing weight. And perhaps, for a few weeks, it would be. But when you're pounding through 4 30 minute HIIT workouts a week, with added cardio, nevermind what, and try to maintain such a diet for months on end, you're going to burn out. In fact, you'll just stop seeing results. Why? Because your body has adjusted to the low levels of fuel you're giving it and has found a backwards way of balancing the scarce fuel with the demanding activities. It thinks something bad has happened. That famine has hit - why would you eat so little otherwise? And that you have to fight to survive - why else would you be working so hard while eating so little? All this leads to the body reconfiguring how it uses what fuel you give it and what fuel it already has (body fat), so that it can use as little as possible to complete the workout. This means it also clings onto body fat for future fuel, in case the 'starvation' gets worse. Because your body is trying to keep you alive.

   So I've said all that. Surely, I understand it. Does that mean I live by it?
   I continue to eat little, especially carbohydrates, which are your body's preferred source of fuel because of how quickly they can be broken down and used. Even slow-release carbs, which are generally low-GI (glycemic index) due to high fibre content slowing absorption down, are put to immediate use when they're absorbed, they don't need to be chemically converted in the body first.
   I get more than enough protein, more than enough fibre, adequate amounts of healthy fats. But I always choose low-carb fruits and vegetables, and I never eat any kind of bread or pasta. I don't dare. Refined carbs or not, I just won't. That's my day to day. And when I do have a treat, all it takes is one chocolate, one single chocolate, to send me into a shame spiral. So I do extra exercise the next day, or, worse still, I will do Tabata immediately, and not eat again for hours. Because of one chocolate.

   I've also been suffering exercise addiction, too terrified to skip a day in case whatever I worked off that week comes back, or whatever I ate the day before, clean or not, will be stored as excessive fat. If I don't see results, all I can think is that I must work harder - exercise more. Fortunately, at least through this mindset I never felt I was eating too much so 'eat less' wasn't something I succumbed to. But I also wouldn't dare eat more, so I would continue to starve myself of fuel to power through those tougher workouts. The idea of exercising fills me with dread, I've come to loathe it. I still do it because I feel trapped, knowing if I don't do it I'm going to be dogged by that fact all day and feel worse. I'm fine when I'm actually doing it, if a little drained of energy - I've maintained the 'go hard or go home' attitude so I always give every workout my all. Or more than I actually have, and then pay for it all day.

   In contrast, I eat much more freely while I'm on holiday - away, or at home - and more or less lose control. May's break this past year was the one time that didn't happen, purely because I barely allowed myself any holiday freedoms. On a normal holiday, when I do, it leads to excessive over-exercising (if it's a staycation, and excessive over-excercising once I get home if I'm away) and the most intense guilt, even if what I ate wasn't actually unhealthy at all, it was just different from my normal menu and simply tasted good. Most of it I usually make from scratch with fresh ingredients and sub things where I can, like whole meal flour instead of refined white. And usually the only 'unhealthy' ingredient is a serving of rice or noodles, which, even then, I buy the healthiest version of. But those are carbs, so I always hold a single serving of noodles, even if it's small, to the equivalent of a giant piece of triple chocolate cake. Which I know is wrong, but I still do it.

   To make all of this over-exercising and guilt worse, there is the troublesome fact that my magnesium levels fluctuate like crazy. I need to take supplements, regardless of what magnesium-rich foods I eat. It takes magnesium to rest and recover muscles, and at 'that time of the month', magnesium levels plummet for most women. This drop in magnesium is linked to migraines, which is why more women suffer them than men, and usually in the second half of their cycle. So if I over-exercise at the wrong time - the time you're more likely to crave sweets - I am guaranteed a migraine. Which make me more miserable. The only 'upside' is that, whenever I get a migraine, I always treat myself to something yummy and it's the one time I never feel guilty about it.
   So, disregarding the migraines and magnesium, guess how I end up feeling in my day to day life? This is the general situation: come 7pm I can't find the energy to move. My legs feel like lead. I have trouble sleeping, I'm grumpy all day, miserable at night, and my concentration slacks. I used to write my book on evenings and nights, when my concentration was at its best (I'd had dinner, I had few distractions, and I was chilled out). Now I have to do it in the morning or afternoon before fatigue can catch up with me. I'm aching because my body isn't recovering properly from workouts I used to find easy and painless, but I still won't let myself miss one. Even when I sprained my ankle in April from a workout, I didn't sit anything out. I took about 10 days off of the specific workout I had lined up for that month, but otherwise continued to exercise - anything that didn't require too much weight or movement on that foot. But I should have sat out. It took a long time to get over it, and I did end up aggravating it and setting myself back, three times, which I was too ashamed to admit here.
   I made a new year's resolution this year to learn when I need to back off. I broke it in April. And I have broken it many more times since then.

   I hate the idea of working out, I hate food, and I hate myself. All because I'm not giving myself the fuel I need to function.

   I counted calories meticulously, cutting corners where I could to make sure I hung around the 1350 mark. I was so proud of myself when I did, and I felt so guilty when I hit 1400, or, God forbid, 1500, regardless of what it was that pushed me over. This was when I started feeling weak, but I put it down to the workout at the time and just kept going. I put more value on calories than nutrition.
   I eventually managed to increase my minimum, and it was such a challenge at the time, to 1350. That made 1400 not so bad any more. But, in truth, nothing changed. Because all I did was say "I'll allow 1400", I didn't change what or how I ate; I made a verbal declaration and made no motion to enforce it. Instead I saw it as a victory when I remained under it.
   It was a little after this that carbs in particular started to dominate my concerns, and suddenly I wasn't just choosing low calorie options, but low calorie and low carb. This more or less eradicated fruit from my diet.
   I have tried to bring fruit back in, and mix it with protein-based meals - like my unicorn pancake breakfast pizza. But that was for breakfast, and that's more or less the only time I see carbs, and because the fruit was added on top of the usual oat flour, I felt so guilty after eating it, especially because it tasted so good. I've not made it again since.
   My lunch consists of eggs and salmon in one format or another, with some carrots, one of the lowest carb vegetables out there, and it rarely deviates. If I fancy a change I'll opt for seafood - prawns or mussels, accompanied with seaweed and perhaps some eggs. Otherwise, more than 10g of carbs for lunch and I start getting paranoid.
   My dinner is more or less the same: protein, be it meat, fish, eggs or beans, with low-calorie veg. But I've developed another neurosis in regards to that, too: it's the biggest meal of my day - which means around 400 calories - and sometimes I feel guilty for having eaten my dinner. Not because it was bad - it's usually stupidly 'healthy' - but simply because I'm full. And that doesn't mean 'ready to pop', it means comfortable and satisfied. This is, admittedly, a rarety, but not so much so that I don't remember the last time it happened (three days ago following a 350 calorie meal of haddock and veg).

   I'm sure all this seems out of the blue, and in truth I owe this confession to Steph182x. I found her through a fitness Instagrammer compilation post on Buzzfeed recently, and when I read some of her recent posts, I broke down into tears. It's true that her case is extreme, and she's in a position eight thousand times worse than me, and yet everything she said about her relationship towards food and exercise, I was feeling, I just hadn't realised it. But she was making efforts to move past it, while I was wallowing, too afraid of gaining any weight or losing control of myself if I loosened the reins a little to actually start eating more, even though I knew that would fix it - fix everything.
    But I can't be afraid - I can't be defeated. Not by myself. I will not be my own worst enemy anymore.
   So I'm forcing myself to take a long-overdue stand. I'm going to stop looking at labels. I know enough about food now to know what's healthy and what's not, what's high in good fats and in fibre and what's not. I don't need to know how many grams of carbs are in there, and that goes doubly for the fact that that is the macro that I'm lacking.
   When I make afternoon snacking decisions, I fret for 10 minutes or so between my choices - not taste, texture, or what I fancy. It's based purely on the amount of carbs. And it's generally between 12g and 24g. Sometimes less, even, than that. And it's always from natural sources, or reliable brands like Graze. But I will always choose the lowest number, even though I have few to none at lunch or dinner.
   This obsession needs to stop. I want food out of my head. There's nothing wrong with being aware of what you're eating, in fact that mindfulness is a good thing. But it can go too far, and I'm living that. It's too easy for things to get out of control, to go too far one way because you're afraid of it heading the other. But being as far from one side as you can isn't 'balance'. And that's what we all want, isn't it?

   While I know the simple solution is 'eat more carbs', breaking the barriers I've put in my own way makes it infinitely more difficult, because I will always be there to judge myself. But it's also the only solution. I have already begun to address exercise, by taking an extra day off here and there when I need it, but food is my weakness, and something so constant in life can't be the source of ruin. I need to draw up a plan that won't be too much too soon, and learn to ignore the voice in my head in favour of the voice of my body.
   I hope I'll blog about this again, to keep it in focus and correct myself more mindfully. Writing about it has already helped me to understand the matter a little more, to pick it apart.

Follow my progress battle with the post label: Gustatory Demons


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