If you don’t have a lot of time to read about my health and fitness revolution, abandon this page right now. But if you’re curious to find out what led me to this new chapter in my life–my battles with weight and self-esteem, coupled with my love affair with food–read on:
I fell in love with figure skating at the age of 2, after watching Kristi Yamaguchi triple-jump and layback-spin her way to a gold medal in the 1992 Olympic Games. I wanted to be like this athletic yet elegant woman; of all the events I had watched on the television, this was the one that captivated me the most. Somehow I knew that figure skating would be a big part of my life.
At age 7, after five years of ballet instruction, I enrolled for my first basic skills classes. As would be a pattern throughout my life, I was impatient with myself and drove myself hard to work my way through the levels. At that time, the ISI program was providing learn to skate classes, (US Figure Skating was for the elite skaters). Working my way through the levels, I dreamed of Olympic stardom. But there would be a roadblock in the form of my ever-increasing weight.
I fell in love with food early. By the time I was 12 years old, I was 4’9 and 130 pounds. Although my mother fed me only the healthiest food (at a time when “organic” was not yet a buzzword), attending pre-school started my problems with food. In pre-school and kindergarden, every occasion warranted some sort of sweet or unhealthy food; chips, cupcakes, candy, and chocolate were regular treats. As such, I developed a previously non-existant sweet tooth and started to crave foods I had never wanted before. I was spindly in first grade, but as the years (and school lunches) progressed I became heavier and heavier.
It wasn’t only school lunches that made me unhealthy, but my eating habits at home. When I came home from school, I would raid my father’s mini-fridge that he kept stocked next to his armchair. It was filled with cold Coca-Cola, and I would often drink at least one (or maybe two) cans. We lived in Orange County, New York at the time, which was only an hour away from New York City. My dad worked almost two hours away near Westchester as a manager for a grocery store, and my mother worked all day at a nursing home as an activities director. So I was left on my own a lot. It’s safe to say that my parents would have been worried if they knew how much food I consumed when they weren’t around. My dad usually arrived home in the late afternoon, but promptly went to sleep by around 8 pm after a long day of working and commuting. Meanwhile, my mother was back in school pursuing a degree in psychology, so I was mostly left to my own devices. I sublimated my loneliness with Nick at Nite (I had a soft spot for “I Love Lucy”) and any food I could find in the cabinets or fridge. It became almost a game to find food and conceal how much I ate. My favorite food was any sort of dairy product, but I loved carbs also. Often I would just grab a box of cereal, wrap myself in a blanket, and eat half a box in one sitting while watching television. Sad by true.
By 6th grade I was almost perfectly round, and resembled a South Park character. By 7th, I was being mocked routinely by my “pretty, skinny” classmates. I was starting to see just how fat I was, especially when I visited a department store and all I could fit into were disgusting neon orange fleece pants and a matching top. Nothing adds insult to injury like looking like a walking furry traffic cone.
Being a “big girl” isn’t bad if you’re healthy, but if you are facing health problems, no matter what size you are, it bodes further examination into your lifestyle. Throughout my life, I was diagnosed with several “disorders” or “diseases”–Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Asthma, and even something called Oppositional Defiance Disorder. I know, I didn’t realize that was actually a real disorder either. But my mom was reluctant to put me on drugs. She had been studying the effects of pharmaceuticals on children, and the results weren’t pretty. After seeking advice from other health professionals (many of whom urged her to attempt a natural solution before medication) she believed there had to be another solution.
She was also studying the effects of food dyes on children with ADHD, and realized that dyes caused many of the symptoms that led docs to make the ADD/ADHD diagnosis. The suggested diet was the Feingold diet, which was created by Dr. Feingold to help treat patients with ADD/ADHD. This was still pretty edgy stuff in the late 1990’s, although he was simply promoting the use of an ELIMINATION DIET, which can help patients determine if certain foods provoke an allergic response. This can help with food sensitivities as well.
As a 12 year old, you can imagine how I felt when my mom suggested I be her “guinea pig” for one of her final projects, and subscribe to the Feingold diet. My doc gave her blessing, so I grudgingly agreed when my mother said the magic words:”You Might Lose Weight”. At this point, I realized that my skating would most likely dramatically improve if I lost the thirty-something extra pounds that were making exercise difficult. My new coaches were Russian Olympic Bronze Medalists who preached the importance of physical fitness and healthy diet. When they had arrived, I said that I wanted to be an athlete like them; with this diet, I might get that chance. Also, I was so frustrated and isolated from the taunting I received at school that I was willing to try anything.
The first week on the Feingold diet, I eliminated everything I loved the most–dairy, wheat, wheat gluten, sugar, food dyes, and artificial flavors. For a girl who could eat an entire pound of cheese cubes in one sitting, this was the equivalent of a juice fast.
The first week on the new diet, I lost six pounds. It just seemed to melt off; I didn’t change my exercise routine (even while I was overweight I skated at least an hour after school) and wasn’t really expecting much to happen. But it did, and I felt like I had a new lease on life. I now had the energy to skip down the hallways of school instead of trudge; instead of being wiped out after school and sleeping in the car on the way to the rink, I was bright and alert. At the rinks, my coaches all asked my mother, “What did you do to Christie?” as if I was a pod person who had been swapped in for the real me. In school, my performance improved as well. My teachers were amazed that I had not been put on Ritalin, and only functioned better as an improvement of my diet. They were so used to my eyes darting around the room and my lack of attention that they didn’t know quite what to make of my newly acquired focus. Always a good student, I was now not only earned high grades, but my teachers felt like I was actually tuned into their lectures. My focus went from that of a sputtering lightbulb to a sharp laser beam in only a week.
For the next six months, I stayed on this diet. My mother had always suspected I had allergies, ever since I was a baby and had to use soy-based formula. So it wasn’t as if I was depriving myself; I was reducing my allergic reactions and inflammation, improving my health, and losing weight. Not a bad combo.
I’m not going to say it wasn’t difficult. There were some nights when I went to my favorite restaurant and couldn’t eat my usual chocolate brownie sundae, so cried bitter tears over my grilled chicken. There were parties where my friends would have delicious multi-colored cupcakes or ice cream and pizza, and I would have to bring my own version instead. Stuff like that could be difficult to navigate, but I was willing to stay on the diet because of the rapid positive changes.
To be honest, my diet then was AWFUL compared to how it is now. Everything is a journey and an evolution, and my diet reflected that. In the morning, I ate a cup of gluten free sugar free rice cereal with soymilk in a Dixie cup on the way to school. For lunch, I would have a Subway turkey or roast beef sandwich (a small one) and a side salad. The sandwich was the only time I went off the “gluten free” bit, although I eventually dumped the sandwich in favor of homemade ones on gluten free rolls. For dinner, it was always the same; we had a Cracker Barrel near my mother’s work, so we would go there and get the same dish every night. I had the grilled chicken with a cup of vegetable soup and salad, and hot tea, (after skating, I needed a hot beverage). Sometimes I had a snack in between the end of school and skating practice, (like a gluten free dairy free cookie) but I wasn’t eating a whole lot.
To reduce temptation, my mother brought me with her to classes so I didn’t raid the refrigerator. This was a good move, as instead of stuffing myself with empty calories I could listen in on class discussion about neurotransmitters and other psychology topics. It is a family joke that I should have received a degree also, since I spent so much time in classes…but I digress.
In six months, I lost 3o pounds. I went from being the “fat girl” at the rink to training with the “semi-elite” group of girls that I idolized. My competition placements reflected my disciplined lifestyle, and I was winning everything. Not bad considering I couldn’t land her single flip a few months ago. All my elements were improving, especially jumps. I not only landed my single flip, but my single lutz, single axel, double salchow, and double loop. Best of all, I was able to borrow dresses from one of the elite girls who was tall and skinny–yes, I could fit into her dresses! I won the 2002 Middle Atlantics Championship wearing her pink and white dress, and felt like a star.
Probably the proudest moments of my weight loss was watching other people’s reaction. Those I hadn’t seen in a while were so impressed by my weight loss, and some didn’t even recognize me at first. I had morphed from a short, tubby Dr. Ruth look-a-like (yes, someone did compare me to her; even sadder, that someone was my mother) to a pretty, slender skating champion.
But after you lose weight, there’s another challenge to be met – maintenance. It is almost more tricky to keep your weight maintained than to lose it. With all the exercise and a minimum of sugar, dairy, and gluten, the weight just kept melting off. People I knew would adopt whispered, hospital tones, saying “are you all right, Christie?”. Even my Russian coach, who was very lean herself, said, “I can see your spine. You must start eating more,”. When a Russian Olympian tells you to put more weight on, that’s a wake up call. I had become really skinny and to some, unhealthy-looking. I LOVED how I looked, after being trapped in a pudgy body for so long, but realized I could eat a little more. I started adding more starches, like brown rice and quinoa, to my normal diet. The weight stayed put on the scale then; I was 100 pounds, winning competitions, and on top of the world.
Things changed when my mother slipped two discs on the job and had to resign as an activities director. At that point she was working on the same campus where she and I went to school (she at the College, me at the prep-school across the street), so it like leaving a home. She had worked as an activities director for the nuns who had founded the College, so it was like losing family also.
With the loss of a job, we couldn’t afford to stay afloat. Our mortgage payments were too much, and we had to move somewhere else. Having fallen in love with Lake Placid in 1998 (at my first competition, I announced dramatically, “someday I want to live here”) my first choice was the former Olympic village. We toured the town, I skated at the rinks, and in the summer of 2003, we packed up our cars and moved up to Lake Placid.
The first few months were rough. All the money we received from our house settlement was spent on the movers. We arrived with ten dollars in our pocket and no jobs. Our cars ran out of gas so we walked everywhere. The first weeks my family and I subsisted on value meals at McDonalds (filet o fish and an iced tea that we all shared) and occasional bags of stale scones from the bakery down the street. Not the most balanced diet. Still, I stayed slim.
Over the years, my diet improved. I stopped eating at Cracker Barrel (or any restaurants, since we couldn’t afford it) and started cooking more at home. Still reliant on grains and carbs, I ate gluten-free variations of the foods I craved. A favorite meal was gluten free dairy free pizza, gf/df mac and cheese, or some other carbohydrate based dish. I gained a bit of weight, but not enough to be significant or change my athletic nature.
Between the ages of 14-16, I was an exercise-a-holic. I would skate up to three or four sessions a day, ride approximately 10 miles a day on my bike, and participate in exercise classes/throw weights around at the gym. At fourteen, I had been introduced to a trainer named Dino who trained the women’s hockey team and was the toughest trainer I ever had. I went from being a skinny little thing with no strength to being built like a real athlete. Dino’s favorite saying was, “You can either be a model or an athlete. It’s your choice,”. In other words, don’t expect to look like a Victoria’s Secret Angel yet be able to leg-press two hundred pounds–it isn’t going to happen. There’s a big difference between training to be a model and training to be an athlete. I was fine with that, and started to develop real definition in my muscles. My whole body became strong and I loved the rush that came from being fit and working out. I would bike up to the gym at 6:30 am, lift for a few hours, then bike to the rink. Several sessions there, then an exercise class either at the rink or gym. Then dance classes, or more biking. In the winter I compensated for the loss of biking by lifting weights, speed skating, and multiple figure skating sessions. I also worked as a skate guard, meaning I sometimes skated up to 8 hours per day on the weekends. No wonder I was so fit and slim, I never stopped moving!
There was a downside though. Being the Type A person that I am, I became fixated with exercise. I was so used to exercising that it became an expected high, and I felt compelled to keep it up at a breakneck speed. Between the ages of 14-16, I almost definitely overtrained. That was evident from the strains and joint pains I experienced, including several memorable occasions where I pulled out my abdominal muscles (from overworking them–that hurt the worst). After that period of time, I still trained, but was much more responsible.
4 years ago, I did what most 18 year olds do–I went to college. Unlike most college students, I stayed at home and commuted a mere 15 minutes to the community college in the next town over. I earned my associates degree in sports and events management, hung in for a year of massage therapy, then transferred to another school when the community college demanded 10,000 dollars to finish my massage degree (gotta love financial aid). I ended up commuting even further once a week to Burlington VT, where I studied an eclectic mix of film studies, writing, psychology, and film and media production.
I also gained the dreaded “freshmen 15”. Or in my case, the “freshman 30”. Over the four years in school, I spent more time sitting than skating; my new companion became my MacBook, my favorite food the latte. For years prior to college I had a “sweet tooth”, but I burned it off skating up to 8 hours a day and constant exercise. I would have approximately 60 ounces of coffee some days to keep myself going, then finally crashed and burned at the end of 2009, after my last year of school. My doctor diagnosed me with Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (ironically, this diagnosis came while I was clutching a Venti Pikes Peak blend and officiating at an ice skating competition) and I had to learn more about my new syndrome. Apparently I had burned out my adrenal glands, which control hormone regulation, energy, metabolism, and more. The worst case scenario of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome is Addison’s Disease. One of the most famous Addisonians (apparently that’s what the sufferers of Addison’s Disease are called) was JFK, who received treatment for the disease while in office.
So my doc put me on a special diet limiting sugar, caffeine, and other known adrenal stressors. I was not new to health food. In fact, despite the Starbucks/candy/everything unhealthy addiction, I ate everything else organic and was technically dairy and gluten free (although I was cheating on that also). She was also an acupuncturist, so I added that to my routine, despite my fear of needles.
After about a year of this regimen, I lost weight again, and was starting to get back to normal. Sure, I still didn’t skate as much as I did in my “competitive days”, but at least I didn’t feel like sleeping all the time or get dizzy climbing the stairs anymore.
Then I fell off the wagon (or zamboni, as it were). Back in school and surprisingly stressed considering I was in massage therapy school at the time, I started to go overboard with my eating habits. Lunch would be moderately healthy–a salad or something equally healthiful–but topped off with a large coffee and sometimes a baked good or chocolate. A friend drove me to the nearby health food store each day, but “healthy” baked goods or “healthy” chocolate are still not good for a former sufferer of adrenal fatigue. Add to that the stress from pre-med style studies, emotional difficulties, and my “side work” of helping my mother operate our skate shop, and by the end of 2010 I was on my way to being an even bigger mess.
My love of sweets knew no bounds. I would binge on them, hide them everywhere and sneak around like a druggie. My mom and I refer to this as the “dark days” of my food addiction, and the time when I was most sick. By 2011 (and even the beginning of 2012) I had reached my highest weight yet. I’m not going to say how much, but it was over twice what I weighed as a competitor. But other than the weight, there were other outward signs of my bad health. My face bloated as it had during the worst of my adrenal fatigue, but became even rounder and paler. At one point, my face looked like the full moon, perfectly circular and white as milk. There were circles under my eyes and more often than not pimples sprouting on my face. My stomach pooched out like it hadn’t since I was 12, and my moods fluctuated wildly. I felt depressed, had no energy, and wanted to do nothing more than sleep and watch television. The toned athlete I had been just a few years ago was gone and replaced by a bloated has-been.
In late 2011, I had been contracted to write a book about the History of Figure Skating in Lake Placid, and I was feeling physically sick and stressed out. This opportunity came at a time when I was a full time student and working full time at the skate shop. Also, my family lost our only car when the engine died and we had no money to replace it. Certainly it could have been a worse situation, but my sickness made me feel very apathetic and frustrated with my circumstances. My mother, worried about my health and my emotional distress, decided to send me to a naturopath in VT. I hadn’t been to the doc since 2009, the year of my adrenal disease disaster.
Up to this time, I was going crazy eating. Although it wasn’t a regular habit, I would hoard baked goods and candy bars, consuming them in secret. I knew they were something that I was allergic to, but I JUST DIDN’T CARE. I was sick of conforming to a “restricted” diet, and wanted to “enjoy” eating. This is ironic, since I was doing the exact opposite by eating foods that were poisonous to me, but I wanted comfort and control. Unhealthy foods provided both of these.
The doctor took one look at me, huddled in the chair across from her in a surly, defensive stance, and calmly proposed a course of action. I would have to once again ELIMINATE (that’s the magic word in my life) all the excess sugar, caffeine, dairy, gluten, and other inflammatories. She was convinced that I was inflamed from eating foods I was allergic/intolerant to, and would only get healthier/lose weight from completely ditching them.
I won’t deny it, for a few weeks (or months, who knows) I rebelled. My choices were a bit healthier, but I still ate grains. I ate chocolate bars, which were organic and had beet sugar instead of regular sugar, but still not healthy by any means. Once I sneaked uptown to ingest a Starbucks soy green tea latte, but felt sick to my stomach afterward so that scared me off Starbucks. At this point I was so allergic–to everything, it seemed–that an immediate gastrointestinal/inflammatory response was inevitable. Naturally, I couldn’t get off my toast fix (1 piece in the morning with breakfast, 1 at night before bed) either. Long ago I had gone gluten free, switching from rice bread to flax bread when I discovered that the rice bread was too high-glycemic for me. I would spread it with soy margerine at first, then I transferred to Earth Balance soy free spread; that stuff was heaven. Asking me to give up toast was like asking me to throw my pink Riedell skates in the Lake; it wasn’t going to happen. Or so I thought.
Now I am on modified Paleo, a lifestyle/food movement that is becoming quite popular. I don’t subscribe to all the precepts of the “caveman” lifestyle; I have yet to eat raw meat or throw boulders for exercise, but I do believe that some of the facts behind paleo make sense. Before the Industrial Revolution, we were healthier and slimmer, until processed food and drive-throughs became common choices in a modern environment.
Basically, I am following what athletes vaguely describe as a “training diet”. No grains, dairy, sugar, artificial colors/flavorings, wheat gluten. I don’t even eat beans, because they are high-glycemic. No tofu, tempeh, or other vegetarian staples, (tofu is soy, which many natural docs are proving to disrupt hormone levels in their processed state; tempeh because it’s grain based). So basically I eat lots of vegetables, meat, fish, and some fruit. I drink lots of tea, (my friends can attest to the fact that I am a tea-a-holic). Do I eat chocolate? Yes, but only if it’s a certain brand or made myself. Water, of course, is something I chug by the gallons.
I believe in paleo, because it has made me feel better.
Anyway, my diet is very clean right now. Certainly, I have my moments when I “cheat”, but I suffer when that happens.
So why am I telling you all this? To fully understand where I am coming from in this blog, you need to know where I’ve been and what I’ve learned over the nearly 14 years about nutrition and health. Now I am finally taking steps to achieve a goal, become healthier and happier, and be an inspiration to others. Isn’t that what we all want?
If you’re reading this, I hope this blog contributes positively to your life, and thank you for reading.