An Unapologetic Examination of an Athlete’s History With Diet
I am on a diet.
I habitually eat a wide and varied selection of food. I have at times restricted intake with the intention of reducing my body weight, and I have also at times increased my intake to make my body grow. I have most certainly participated in diet culture as it’s defined by the body positivity movement and anti-diet advocates, and while I totally agree that some aspects of diet culture are damaging, it is a wide spectrum, and I like where I’m sitting.
It’s interesting that “diet” can be used as a noun (a thing) and a verb (an action). As a noun, it means “the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats” or “a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.” As a verb, it means “restrict oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food in order to lose weight.” You can see how this word is loaded with positive and negative possibilities. In my childhood, I experienced both.
From a very early age, I have associated food with performance. My Dad was an avid bodybuilder, and our basement was a fully outfitted home gym. At 10 years old, I would sit on the stairs and watch my parents squat and do hamstring curls while they smoked cigarettes and listened to the “Rocky” soundtrack. As “Eye of the Tiger” blared in the background, I stared at the posters of Lenda Murray, Cory Everson and Sharon Bruneau. There was no question in my mind that these women were amazing. And amazing was strong. I needed to be strong.
I had my first protein shake when I was 12. It was not the protein shakes of modern times, with hydrolized whey protein and BCAA’s. Oh no, it was much simpler. Raw eggs, milk and ice cream. We were clearly taking nutrition tips straight from Stallone himself.
My Dad had me on a plan to gain some muscle, and I had started squatting and deadlifting in the home gym to supplement a burgeoning track-and-field career. I was fast, and I was really, really motivated. I loved racing, and I loved winning even more. Before every track meet, we would embark on a week-long carb fest to get me fuelled for the events. Whether my Dad actually understood how glycogen worked, I have no idea. But my diet didn’t seem to be holding me back.
Before you start to think, “Wow, this kid’s dad was living vicariously through her and irreparably damaging her relationship with food,” you need to know that while I have always believed food would make me a better athlete, my Mom made sure to let her kids know that food is tradition and food is love.
My Momma can bake. Her Christmas shortbread is legendary. Her pies, to die for. Weekends were for pancakes made from scratch, A&W and the occasional pop. This was the ‘90s, and the hippies hadn’t villainized sugar yet.
I was making other associations with food and health at this point. My hormones were raging, and my once buttery-smooth skin was blooming acne full time. My family did not have acne. Just me. My brother’s face was as smooth as my Mom’s: a perfect, glass-like complexion. It was devastating, and the years I spent battling the anxiety and low self-esteem from acne were hard.
I threw myself into sports and academics. My Mom once bragged to a friend that my ab muscles were bigger than my boobs—a devastating compliment for a teenage girl desperate to meet a boyfriend. The solution? Food. You are what you eat, so the acne must have been caused by something I was eating, right? I followed my Dad’s prescription and cut out pretty much anything refined and waited for my cherub skin to appear. It didn’t. I went to the doctor, got a prescription for Accutane and had clear skin within a month.
An interesting alternate storyline: what was happening with my brother and food. My brother and I share a passion for sports. During the summer months while we were off from school, my Dad would give us some water and fruit and tell us not to come home until lunchtime. We would head outside with our bikes, baseball bats, gloves, footballs and hockey sticks to play every sport until it was time for lunch. After lunch, it was back outside until Mom came home from work. We were active, resourceful and slightly sunburned kids. My brother, however, was gaining weight, according to my Dad.
We ate the same whole foods, we were both very active, and we shared the same genetics. My brother was one year younger than me. He was a rakey kid until junior high, when he added a little body fat, probably as a normal part of his growth. He stopped growing up and grew out a little bit.
My dad put him on a diet. This meant no cake at parties and no ice cream during family outings. Even though he was forced to watch us all eat it, he was not allowed to partake. Totally cruel and totally brutal. All this came from a place of love, but it was misguided.
Interestingly, when my brother started the 10th grade, he started growing again. Like almost 8 inches.
Was the restriction diet really the best thing that could have happened to a growing, active child at 12 or 13?
In my family, one child experienced food as fuel for athletic prowess and as her Mom’s love in banana bread form. The other was exposed to the ugly side of diet culture and fat shaming.
The next chapter in my food journey picks up in my late teens and early 20s, when I become a gym rat and my quest to build boulders for shoulders intensifies. It’s only natural that I decide to do my first physique competition