This Simple Test Made Me Realize My “Healthy Eating” Wasn’t Actually That Healthy
I told myself I was just eating clean, or that I just really cared about the quality of ingredients I cooked with. I told myself I didn’t put “junk” in my body. I told myself I was recovered from my eating disorder, and living a healthy, balanced life. But I was telling myself lies.
Let me back up a bit and explain. After many years of struggling with bulimia and anorexia, I dug my heels in and worked to get my wellness back to a good place. I did all of the things you’re supposed to do in recovery: I gained weight. I stopped the eating disordered behaviors (no bingeing and purging, no skipping meals, and no counting calories). I told everyone I had recovered. I started working at a nonprofit that supports those struggling with eating disorders. I "looked" recovered. So, I figured it had to be true.
Except for one pesky thing: I was still restricting my food intake, and as a result, my physical body wasn’t able to function at its highest capacity. I didn’t realize it at the time, and I never could have admitted that I was still in a pattern of disordered eating. But my desire to get my eating disorder under control had morphed into something else: An unhealthy obsession with “healthy” eating.
I avoided gluten, even though I wasn’t gluten-free (and loved toast). I ate raw kale multiple times a day. I bargained with myself about treats (“I could only have this if I didn’t have that.”) I avoided all things packaged, processed, frozen, boxed, and refined. I exercised when I didn’t want to, and did forms of exercise that I secretly hated. I told myself I was working toward a healthier lifestyle, one that would make me feel as glowy and lovely as all of my favorite Instagram accounts looked. I wanted to be “well,” but I didn’t realize that I believed “well” actually meant “thin and rich, with a camera-ready kitchen for preparing my maca-ashwagandha-turmeric-cacao nib-bee pollen-spirulina smoothies.
You don’t have to have to be an ED recovery warrior to relate to this story. Society tells us, and shows us, that there is a very specific “look” to wellness. As a result, many of us begin restricting the foods we eat, and altering our relationships to movement and exercise. We want to feel well and be healthy, but we’re not sure how to go about it. Along the way, many of us develop an inexplicable fear and aversion toward anything that doesn’t wear a faux-health halo of pure, natural, organic, sugar-free, dairy-free, carb-free, and, well, you get the picture.
I didn’t realize any of this until I was introduced to a fascinating test that measures our metabolic rate. The test is performed by wearing a plastic cover over your head (it looks kind of like a space helmet) and just breathing naturally for about 30 minutes. While you rest, the exchange of oxygen to carbon dioxide is measured, and analyzed. From there, clinicians can determine your metabolic rate (how efficiently your body converts calories to energy) and whether you are catabolic (using an unnaturally high amount of own your tissues for protein sources).
My test results showed I was hypometabolic, meaning I was metabolizing at a slower than normal rate. This happens when we restrict our food intake, because our bodies enter a “famine” mode and prepare to conserve the reduced nutrients received. I was also catabolic, which means that I wasn’t eating enough to give my body the protein it needed. Instead, I was burning through my body’s bones and muscles just to function on a basic level. The test shows, to the exact percentage, how your body’s doing with all of this.
Here’s the thing: It’s not unlikely that the majority of those pursuing this restrictive brand of “wellness” fall somewhere on the hypometabolic and catabolic scale. However, this news doesn’t have to be scary: Getting curious about our bodies’ health on a deeper level gives us the tools to truly live vibrant lives, free from self-criticism and feelings of anxiety about food, movement, and our bodies.
Once I knew where I stood, I worked with a clinician to bring me where I needed to go: I changed my diet, adding a greater variety of foods and increasing the amount of protein I consumed. I stopped exercising with such intensity and started doing things that felt good, like gentle hiking and yoga. I let go of the worry I had about what my body looked like, and trusted that if I was genuinely taking care of myself, it would all work out.
And that’s exactly what makes pursuing health such a joyful thing: Eating foods that nourish us from the inside-out, feeling supported and energized, enjoying intuitive movement, letting go of other people’s standards, and putting our faith in the fact that we are doing the best we can to nurture our unique needs. This test helped me see all that—and motivate myself to really, truly heal. I’m now thriving, eating a variety of foods (and plenty of things that light me up with happy vibes), and feeling clear-headed, rested, focused, and calm. How amazing is that?
Good health looks different for everyone. I understand that now, and feel so empowered. This book, Measuring Health from the Inside explains the test in detail, as well as the science behind it, and the road back to a healthy place.
If you are struggling with disordered eating or an eating disorder, know that you are not alone. Here is a good place to start healing.