After four months of strict dieting, twice-a-day gym sessions six days a week, endless chicken breasts and egg whites, layers of fake tan and learning how to walk in six-inch heels; competition day arrives. All of the sacrifices and exhausting workouts lead to those 60 seconds on stage. I had shed 12kg and got my body fat down to 11 per cent. The day comes and goes. Now what?
‘I found myself feeling really low’
For me, that question lingered for a long time. I placed fourth and third in my competitions, bringing home two glorious trophies which still manage to pick me up if I am feeling sorry for myself. The highs of show day leave you feeling somewhat useless once it is all over. Every day for the past 16 weeks has been dedicated to reaching one goal, and during that time nothing else outside of the competition bubble has seemed important. Yeah, I know… it seems like a selfish sport.
After the photo shoots, congratulations and celebratory cheat meals (plural indeed), I found myself feeling really low. I struggled to get back into my normal eating habits, lacked enthusiasm and lost focus. On top of that, months of strict dieting and a gruelling exercise regime left my hormone levels awry.
Sports nutritionist and dietician Helen Phadnis explains, ‘Inadequate energy intake affects not just menstruation but also bone health, cardiovascular health, metabolic rate and immunity’. The stress hormone cortisol ‘causes the release of glucose into the blood stream and insulin resistance’. In the long term, continuously raised cortisol levels can ‘directly contribute to weight gain, increasing hunger and cravings for high fat food’. To say I could relate to this is an understatement. Pizza, anyone?
Feeling low and hormonal led to binge-eating, an emotional comfort. Takeaways followed by Krispy Kremes and late night cereal, constant overeating… we’ve all been there. Jennifer Low, dietitian and health writer, describes binge-eating as ‘a maladaptive coping mechanism that can really harm a person’s health – both physically and mentally. The person will have learned to not recognise negative feelings, they may binge as a way to cope with the feelings’.
After a week of indulging I gave up on trying to weigh my food and instead started to just eat sensibly, allowing myself a treat if I felt like it. The problem is I had no idea how many calories I was consuming, and as predicted, gave in to my sweet tooth whenever it called. Over the summer I partied, like any normal 22-year-old should if they want to (which always leads to the local kebab shop), and continued not to track my food.
‘My gut was irritated and I was extremely bloated’
The consequences? Five months post-show I felt awful about myself and was unable to find balance. I would eat well, binge, and then do extra cardio workouts to make up for it. More importantly, I was having gut health issues. I suffer from ulcerative colitis, a chronic irritable bowel disease, and after spending the summer consuming food that I wasn’t used to, such as dairy and alcohol, my condition flared up. My gut was irritated, I was extremely bloated and I had terrible fatigue (a common symptom of UC). A specialist put me on an eight-week steroid course to calm my symptoms – I was taking up to eight tablets per day.
Being an aspiring nutritionist, I wanted to use food as medicine where possible, too. I saw it as a push to get my eating habits back to normal, stop binging and feel healthy again. At the same time, I started an Access to Science course to study nutrition and also landed a magazine internship, which gave me a new motivation and focus.
‘Reverse dieting ensures your metabolism can adapt steadily’
The right thing to do straight after competing would have been to reverse diet. Jennifer Low explains that ‘calorie-restricted diets might reduce your basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy you expend)’. This in turn slows your metabolism, ‘so it is then a lot easier to gain body fat once you resume normal eating’. I had been on calories as low as 1100 for four months, so you can see why my body had a shock. Reverse dieting ensures that your calories increase gradually week by week, your metabolism can adapt steadily and that you can make some lean gains.
To get back on track I began a ‘gut restoration’ plan eliminating irritants like gluten, dairy, soy, eggs and alcohol; which commonly cause my ulcerative colitis flare-ups to worsen. My plan consists of five meals spread out over the day and includes sweet potato, chicken, white fish, green veg, white rice and gluten-free oats. Little and often is the key. I lift heavy weights four to five times a week and do four 10-minute HIIT sessions a week.
12 weeks after starting my new plan I felt better than ever. I reached a maintainable weight and built muscle, my digestion and gut health improved and I am now back in love with training. I don’t obsess over the scales but I have gone from 62kg to 57kg and can see my results through weekly progress pictures. I weigh my food to ensure I hit my macro goals every day and stay in control of what I am consuming. On the other hand, if a friend wants to go out for dinner, I will happily say yes without stressing that it won’t fit into my eating plan.
‘I haven’t binged for months’
That is the difference between prepping for a competition and prepping to feel healthy. I know that weighing my food and being on a plan can’t last forever, just as my competition couldn’t, but I am able to maintain it for now and it has given me a positive approach to food. I haven’t binged for months, my calories are high and I don’t schedule in huge cheat meals to go wild. I simply stay on plan, but if a social event comes up or I fancy something different, I’ll go with it.
A study published by Dr. Sherry of Dalhousie University, The Perfectionism Model of Binge Eating, states that ‘individuals with a high degree of perfectionism are often setting themselves up for a host of physical, emotional and mental problems– particularly related to binge eating’. Competing is all about bringing the perfect package to stage and you can become obsessed with achieving this image.
My aim is not to put you off competing entirely, because I gained so much confidence, experience, strength and friendships from mine. My aim is to help spread the importance of setting goals after the show, and to make people aware of the damage it can cause if you push yourself to these extremes. Dr. Sherry’s study looks at the mistaken belief that ‘perfectionism will ultimately produce achievement and social success’. My journey to the stage gave me a huge sense of self-achievement, but taught me that having abs isn’t the key to happiness after all.
Aimee Corry, 22, London
- Dr Sherry’s study found at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090418081930.htm