When I hit my first ever fitness plateau, my trainers told me that the next step was to focus on nutrition. I went all in on the low-carb craze, with lots of vegetables, lean proteins, shakes, and, well, not much else. As a baker, it was difficult to give up on my hobby completely, but I mostly stopped to avoid the temptation of homemade breads and desserts. I was proud of my willpower, mentally patting myself on the back when I avoided my so-called trigger foods. It was a challenge to eat in such a restrained manner, and I saw it as something to be celebrated. Food journaling and counting calories was almost ritualistic, and it gave me a sense of peace and control.
After about 6 months on this diet, I lost more weight than ever before – until my progress once again halted. “Don’t worry,” friends at the gym assured me. “It’s normal to hit a plateau. Just work out harder, watch what you eat, and you’ll break through it.”
But no matter how much harder I worked out and how much more I restricted my diet, I couldn’t reproduce my initial weight loss trend. In fact, instead of breaking through to the other side as I’d been told would happen, I began to backslide. Weight was slowly and inexorably creeping back on. I felt as though I was scrabbling for purchase and seeing all of my hard work slip away from me – was all of that time, energy, and money all for nothing?
Worse still, I went from feeling strong and energized after workouts to constantly tired and sore. Injuries kept cropping up, which led to further setbacks and periods of time when I couldn’t work out at all. According to the body composition scale at the gym, I was beginning to lose muscle, so this new weight gain couldn’t even be attributed to building lean mass as I’d originally hoped.
I didn’t know enough about diet to realize that those were all signs of nutritional deficiency: losing muscle mass, loss of energy, chronic injuries, and poor post-workout recovery. Following a low-carb diet was trendy and effective in the short term; I didn’t know that my body actually needed carbohydrates, particularly after an intense workout, to rebuild muscle and replenish glycogen. I had never been an athlete or participated in team sports, where you have an opportunity to learn about post-workout nutrition; all I knew about it was based on mainstream diet and exercise culture, which demonizes each of the “bad” macronutrient categories in turn – first fat, then carbs, and often both. Protein, of course, gets a pass.
My lack of progress was incredibly frustrating; diet and exercise were no longer working, and I was now fully entrenched in a self-destructive, numbers-obsessed mindset. Since reducing carbohydrates clearly had no bearing on my progress, I saw no point in continuing such a restrictive diet. Though I continued counting calories, I began reintroducing carbs a little at a time. At first, I started by adding one banana a day in my morning protein shake. When I did, the unthinkable happened: my body went crazy. Two weeks after, I stepped on the scale to find out that I’d gained a whopping 10 pounds. 10 pounds! From bananas!
Looking down at the scale, I felt a sense of dizzying helplessness. For a time, eating “right” and exercising had given me a sense of peace, as if everything was a series of inputs and outputs that could be manipulated to achieve a desired result. What was happening to me now defied explanation.
At a loss and finding no satisfactory answers online or from the people at my gym, I went to a doctor to get my thyroid checked.
“Great news! Everything is perfectly normal,” the doctor said, reviewing her clipboard. “In fact, your thyroid is slightly on the ‘hyper’ side. In other words, your metabolism is a bit faster than average.”
The too-familiar turmoil of helplessness began to well up inside of me as she delivered this supposedly-reassuring news.
“What?” I asked, incredulous. “How is that possible?”
She shrugged. “It’s what the numbers say. See, your thyroid-stimulating hormone is a bit high. Still within normal ranges, though.” She indicated the number on her clipboard with a jab of her pen.
“But I keep gaining weight.”
“Are you exercising?”
“Six days a week.”
“What about food? Have you tried keeping a food journal?”
“Yes, I’m counting calories.”
She paused thoughtfully, brow furrowed in thought. “Well then, I’d recommend reducing your calorie intake and changing up your exercise routine. It’s all about calories in, calories out.”
“But… what if that isn’t working?”
“Well, if exercise isn’t working, it’s time to take a look at your nutrition, and if nutrition isn’t working, your body may be getting used to your current workouts. Try changing things up a little bit.”
I walked out of the doctor’s office feeling more desperate than ever, her words echoing in my mind like an accusation of inadequacy. “Eat right and exercise” was the guidance I’d always heard. Was I not committed enough? Had I abandoned my diet too soon? Did I need to work out harder, and eat even less? That didn’t seem right. I knew so many people who didn’t even work out and were effortlessly slim, so how could it be that I was trying so hard to no avail?
While I didn’t exactly want there to be something wrong with me, I felt like this somehow would have been a reassurance. In theory, it would have provided both an explanation and a solvable problem. Instead, I had no more answers than before.
When I went to bed that night, I remember staring up at the ceiling, my mind swirling in helplessness, feeling lost at sea. It had been a long time since I’d felt depressed, but I could feel the familiar darkness pressing in on the edges now. Everything felt like it was spiraling out of control.