Step 1 for overcoming the show-rebound cycle: Honesty!
Be honest with yourself about the cycle you are in and that this is not healthy. For starters denial doesn't help you, it doesn't benefit you. Being honest, raw, and real with yourself can be hard, but it is the first step. Admitting that you are struggling brings it to the light and only then can you stand face to face with it and deal with it. Being in denial and pretending that I was healthy and happy wasn't benefiting me. It wasn't just the weight gain that was hard, it was the mental and emotional aspect that was hardest. The track, restrict obsessive mentality, the anxiety, and stress that came along with it in social settings and the ability to live a normal life. The mental prison of tracking, obsessing, and being overly concerned with food, weighing every gram was awful. The anxiety about going out to eat and 'needing' to eat on track or the fear and anxiety of the possibility of going off the rails and overeating was awful. The anxiety of obsessing over how you look was awful.
Step 2: There has to be a better way.
I was over it, I felt there had to be a different way. I remembered a time when I was able to eat normal: to eat when I felt hungry, stop eating when I felt full, and eat what I felt like eating without fear, guilt, anxiety, shame. A time when I didn't overeat or fear overeating, a time where I didn't restrict and white knuckle my nutrition and chokehold myself into submission to macros, a time where I was able to be flexible and hold onto my lifestyle and nutrition loosely. I was fearful of trying something different than what I had been doing for the last 5 years. That was tracking macros, and over and over telling myself I needed to start tracking again and get back on track again. For 5 years I had believed that 'macros' was the way however I was beginning to think there has to be a better way, as I can't possibly track macros for the rest of my life, let alone go through this cycle for the rest of my life. I desperately wanted and needed some semblance of normal, of health, of BALANCE. This was not balanced, this was not health.
Step 3: Believe it is possible and trust yourself.
I was beginning to believe that it was possible to get back to a healthy relationship with food, with my body, with fitness. What I was currently in the midst of was not healthy or balanced, but I knew it was going to take overcoming some fear of control as well as to trust myself. This was around the time that 'intuitive eating' was a buzz word so I had read about other bikini competitors who had given up tracking and got back to a healthy relationship with food, eating, their body and fitness. I opened my mind to the possibility that there were other ways and that I was going to need to trust myself and trust the skills and knowledge I had learned from 5 years of tracking food. Tracking macros is a wonderful tool to bring awareness to your eating habits and teach you about food, their macronutrient composition as well as their calorie count. I still believe in tracking food for people starting their nutrition journey to learn and gain awareness but not in a strict way. Stepping out of your comfort zone is scary, but I reminded myself that I have done new things before and that even trying a new way would be worth it because this current way wasn't working. I was also nervous because I was fearful of having no guidelines or restraints and that I would overeat myself into oblivion.
Step 4: Decide and dive in.
I decided what I was going to do, and then gave it all up. I was going to give up tracking, give up food rules, diet rules, anything and everything that had to do with tracking weighing, logging, rules, restrictions, cants, never, always, etc. I had a good foundation of various foods and their macro content from tracking for years so I was going to trust myself to give up tracking, weighing, logging food and trust in my ability to choose meals and foods, and guesstimate their calories and nutrient composition, combining that with mindful, intentional eating habits. I was going to let go of the control, and trust myself to identify and choose foods I wanted to eat, and then choose portion sizes based on what I felt my body, hunger, and appetite wanted and needed. Part of giving it all up was a desire to want to get back in touch with my true hunger and appetite awareness and be able to make mindful, intentional, conscious food choices and meal choices based on internals cues like my actual hunger, not because I planned to eat at specific times (food rules) and not let external cues like an app, time of day, or specific macro #s determine my eating habits.
Step 5: Execute the plan and keep going, don't give up!
My plan more or less was to
Eat 3 main meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner
Eat these meals when I FELT hungry (paying attention to and learning my own hunger cues like lightheadedness, decreased ability to concentrate, growling stomach, etc)
Eat the food I wanted [not because it is deemed ‘clean’ etc] even if that was cereal
Eat slowly (taking one bite at a time, putting the fork down, chewing each bite 20-30 times and swallowing before taking another bite)
Stop eating when I was feeling satisfied/full (stopping bc I didn't need anymore even though there was still food left)
Eat snacks if I needed based on hunger levels
Self-regulation, monitoring and discerning if i was genuinely hungry or if I was bored or emotional
For me personally, I wondered if it was going to work, I feared to fail and also feared eating myself into oblivion, but I kept going even when I was anxious and felt like I needed to track and weigh food. I didn't give up and resisted the urge to track, pressing on toward the goal, because I wanted so badly to be healthy and have a healthy relationship with myself, food, my body, and fitness. I think an important driving force to call out was how this cycle was emotionally painful for me and it was depriving me of health, balance, and joy and that is much more valuable to me than competing and having an identity as a bikini competitor.
Step 6: Give yourself grace, be kind to yourself, allow room for setbacks and learning.
This journey to a healthy relationship with food and your body image, is going to have ups and downs, there are going to be times where you overeat and in those moments where you feel like you failed, i.e. you had a giant ice cream sundae, or had a burger and fries, or you ate way too many Oreos:
give yourself tons of grace and kindness
refuse to beat yourself up mentally
refuse to punish yourself by eating less because you maybe ate more than your body needed,
refuse to punish yourself physically by working out more
accept it as a learning experience, you are trying, you are trying your best, it is part of the process
move on and proclaim it is a clean slate from here
This process and journey are not going to be perfect, there are going to be setbacks but another thing we are giving up here is perfection. We are going to leave room for setbacks view them as learning experiences and parts of the journey and process. Perfectionism is the enemy of progress and health. Even if you are eating more than you need and eating food that isn't necessarily the most healthy for you, you are in a sense letting your body get back to its normal set point. When you are in this space where you are ultimately letting yourself eat whatever you want, you will get to a place where you get so sick of being so full, so sick of feeling weighed down by overeating, and so sick of unhealthy food, that you won't want to do that anymore, you won't those foods anymore and naturally, without even tracking or having to force yourself to start another diet or get back on track, you will want and crave a salad, and your body will begin to normalize and more or less and begin to balance out. So during this process, I honestly do encourage you to give yourself permission to eat whatever you want because we are giving up any semblance of rules and restrictions, but we are aiming for the above guidelines and strategies in step 5. We are attempting to let go and allow our bodies to 'normalize' and get to a place that is 'natural' for it and a place that is maintainable and sustainable, rather than trying to FORCE and make our bodies do things in a restrictive unhealthy manner.
Step 7: Give yourself time, look at the big picture, remember it is a lifelong process to keep at: from time to time revisit basics, adjust, recalibrate, learn and stay the course.
It has been a little over a year from the time I gave up everything to attempt this journey to health, so it has been about a year for me to get to a place where I can say that I have a healthy relationship with food, with my body, and with fitness. I don't track my food anymore: I am mindful and intentional about my meals, and the food I eat, I do still plan out my meals for the week based around what I feel like eating and also mindful about the food choices being minimally processed and nutrient-dense, whilst also enjoying life with my friends, and enjoying my favorite foods in moderation. One of the biggest things I believe in is curating and developing an eating lifestyle that is unique to you that is pretty easy to adhere to, that allows for flexibility to be able to enjoy life as you see fit, and one that you will be able to maintain for the rest of your life, as well as one that helps you feel your best and reach any goals that are important to you. Rather than thinking in black and white, get comfortable with a more moderate approach. There are 10,000 different ways to live a healthy life, so find the strategy that suits you and has fun!
One of the ways I do that is the 80/20 principle. For me 80% of the time I eat well and 20% of the time I eat something 'indulgent'. I get flak sometimes for being a personal trainer and a professional in the health and wellness industry but I enjoy eating a donut, or ice cream at least once a week because 1. treats are something I genuinely enjoy, 2. because giving up these types of things is not realistic, sustainable or maintainable and 3. because for me a healthy life is one that values balance and the 80/20 principle means balance, health, and fitness for me. Think about it this way, if even 95% of the time you are following a maintainable 80/20 principle throughout the week, that is much better than the only clean eating, can't have this or that food in which you only adhere to a few days of the week and then go buck wild on the on weekends. Look at the big picture. Does missing one single workout REALLY make you a failure, or is it more important that you're consistent the majority of the time? Does eating one indulgent meal or treat mean you’re a failure, or it is more important to focus on what you're consistent with the majority of the time?
Step 8: Enjoy fitness and wellness.
Take the time and the leap of faith to develop and curate your unique lifestyle of health and fitness then enjoy life.
Enjoy your fitness, your movement, your exercise, whatever it is: work hard at it, give your best effort, and do that consistently, do that most of the time.
Enjoy your food, eat food you like that satisfies your taste buds and preferences, that helps you feel good, that also helps you perform well at your movement and to feel your best to live your life with your family and friends.
Life is not meant to be lived in a box, living in a mental prison, in a rule and restrictive based mentality.
Life is meant to be enjoyed, you are meant to have freedom from food, and to thoroughly enjoy good health, to look forward to working out, to feel good about your lifestyle, to feel good about the way you fuel your body, your health, your movement, and your life. Let the lifestyle you aim to curate be one that empowers you to feel your best, and one that can be maintained with some semblance of ease.
I am so happy that I was able to overcome the unhealthy unhappy rebound cycle of competing, and so happy that I was able to regain the love and passion I had for fitness and living a healthy lifestyle. At one point competing robbed me of the passion for fitness and health I once had. I am so glad I took the leap of giving it all up to be able to find health and balance again. I am also happy to be on the other side of that mountain and be here to tell you if you are in the middle of this cycle, there is hope, there is a better way, and you too can get back to a place physically, mentally and emotionally that is healthy, balanced and free.
It was a hard decision to give up competing, but I can’t see myself competing again and taking the chance of falling back into that dark obsessive prison of a headspace. I am thankful for the experience, for all the beautiful people I met and for the opportunity to see what I was made of, but I have decided it is not a healthy place for me to be. I just recently sold my competition suit, to someone I am coaching so I know that it is in good appreciative hands, but parting with that suit was sad, it was like the final goodbye to competing, the official step in my retirement.
Now that I have found balance, a lifestyle that I love, one that I can maintain with joy and ease, one that is focused on moving well, feeling well, performing well, and living well, I can’t imagine going back.
Each of us will value different things in our lives, what is important to each of us and what is a priority for each of us will all differ. I respect and honor to all the women who compete and have been able to make a life out of it and it works for them! I decided that it wasn't worth it to me: I value balance, health, performance, and high quality of life above all else over being competition lean and a lifestyle that requires high levels of sacrifice and commitment.
Charissa Sutliff is an Online Fitness & Nutrition Development Coach, a Competition Prep Coach, Certified Personal Trainer, and holds a B.S. in Kinesiology. She also holds an M.A. in Higher Education Administration. She is enthusiastic about faith, working out, healthy nutrition, meditating, learning, growing and coffee!