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Food & Body Dysmorphia

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

I wrote my first fitness blog years ago, about the same time I wrote my divorce piece. While I received some feedback on the divorce entry, the fitness blog seems to have had a bigger impact. Since writing about getting into and maintaining a fitness regime, many friends and strangers have reached out to share their stories, explain their motivation and so on. After speaking with a number of these folks I noticed that some of them were going through similar life transitions as I had experienced on my fitness journey. I want to capture those here and try to explain what I have learned from those experiences.

When I first began my journey, I was determined to make a difference. In the beginning, I quickly accelerated from 10 minutes of workout each morning to more than an hour. I used fitness DVD programs, and eventually worked in running and yoga. The strange thing is I didn’t see any changes for some time to my physical appearance. I remained motivated, primarily because I felt better. My attitude toward food changed too. Primarily, I started paying attention. My perspective on eating quickly shifted to an equation that ended up being detrimental. I saw my food intake as a negative toward my workout effort. In other words, my brain was telling me “Do not eat ANYTHING that will negate your hard work this morning.” I would work out for an hour, go for a 4-mile run, do 30 minutes of yoga and then eat a small bowl of yogurt and berries. I had salad for lunch. Usually I had a reasonable dinner, as I shared that meal with my then wife. I was not tracking my calories or macros at that time, but I can venture to guess that I was in a serious calorie deficit. This manifested itself in a few ways. First, as this routine continued, I became more tired, both physically and mentally. Two, I was losing fat but I was also losing muscle, despite my workouts. After about six months, the weight just fell off. My face was skinny, I lost 5 sizes in my pants in a short amount of time. My friends thought I was sick. Somehow…because the human body is amazing… I stepped up my cardio and continued my workouts, working out 1 hour a day for 6 days a week and running 40 to 50 miles a week. While eating fucking salads. The first indication that something was wrong happened while working from home. I had two conference calls in the mid-morning. I attended the first call, no problem. I sat down on the couch to relax for a minute before the next call. I woke up 3 hours later. My brain had shut down. I realized I had to change my diet.

Somewhere in there I did a Spartan Sprint 9-mile obstacle course at Wintergreen in West Virginia and crushed it. I attribute my ability to power through that course to my workout and cardio regime.

After the divorce I continued to iterate on my diet but was still too conservative. I was gaining some muscle and keeping lean, but without measuring my intake I was still under-eating. While I didn’t realize it at the time, I had some version of body dysmorphia, where I still thought I needed to lose weight, to look fitter. Frankly, it was the opposite. My first real girlfriend after the divorce, a Mexicana, would call me “flacito” or “small skinny guy”. She would complain that I didn’t eat enough, and I would get angry, really angry. She called herself “fluffy”, in that she was not skinny. She was not fat…but curvy. I saw her approach to food as reckless and lacking discipline. Even still, she did manage to get me to eat more carbs (mmm homemade tortillas!), and generally more calories (mas nopalito tacos y rajas, por favor!) I continued my regime, working out 6 days a week, running relentlessly. Despite all of this, when I looked in the mirror, I thought “not there yet, not good enough.” Then something changed. One day I was getting dressed at my girlfriend’s house and I was about to put on my shirt. I said something like “…I think I am starting to see the results from my workouts, physically…” and she immediately replied with “….what are you talking about? You are ripped!” How hadn’t *I* seen this. Turns out, this is common with people who transition into fitness. That moment forward, I looked at myself differently. Instead of seeing a problem that needed fixing, I saw a platform to build on. After some introspection, I saw that I had something was powerful and meaningful. I had built skills, strength, capabilities. I ran and won races. I could do 100s of pull ups. I could run 10 miles, do 30 6 count burpees, then 100 cross-over pushups. I had grit, determination, and discipline. All I had to do now was eat correctly. You were right, and I was wrong.

Even still, after learning this and shaking the dysmorphia (arguably, I still have some version of this at times), it still took another year or more to get things dialed in. That is mostly on me, as I “winged” it for so long, not studying diet, tracking correctly, etc.

Some facts about body dysmorphia:

· You find some part of your body unattractive, or that you generally dislike

· It is often unnoticeable to everyone around you

· You obsess over it, sometimes changing your clothes or how you dress to conceal

· You find yourself going to the mirror constantly to see if you have “fixed” it

· “Improvements” go unnoticed or even when you have “improved” it to the desired standard, you still don’t recognize it

I am not a dietitian, a fitness coach, or a kinesiologist so I will not post the best practices here. There are plenty of articles online that cover tracking macros, lean muscle building techniques, and the like. I wrote this because I suspect others have experienced something similar and I wanted to share that it is normal. I also wanted to share that it is recoverable, and manageable.

I will write another article on self-worth, self-love, and self-forgiveness soon. These things play a role in the fitness journey, when things don’t go your way, when you become too attached to the process, when you get injured, and you cannot maintain your routine. Understanding and recognizing the real why is critical.

Be kind to yourself.

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