If I had known when I was 16 years old that restrictive eating and over exercising would have caused infertility 15 years into the future, would I have changed my behaviour?
I highly doubt it. How could I have, when I grew up with the perfect storm of conditions for having hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA) later in life: an overweight father with health conditions related to a poor diet, which in turn made me extremely fat-phobic as a child (I was scared to eat foods high in fat because I thought I would have a heart attack, too); a slightly Type A and perfectionist mindset combined with anxiety due in part to my dad’s poor health; an introverted personality type that prefers individual sports such as running and weight lifting over team sports; over 10 years of competing in endurance sports; going on the birth control pill at age 16 which prevented me from cycling naturally thus hiding any ovulation problems for over 15 years; and growing up in North American diet culture, where every magazine told me how I needed to lose those last 10 pounds.
Perpetuating diet culture
When I first realized the most probable underlying cause of my infertility (I’m still waiting to get into the fertility clinic to see if anything else is wrong, but I’m 99% sure based on my missing period and other symptoms), I was angry. First, I was angry at myself, but not for my behaviour — as I mentioned above, I doubt that could have been helped — I was angry that I played a part in contributing to diet culture with my blog and personal training business. I know I have at least a few blog posts about losing weight, counting calories and “healthier” versions of recipes. I was mad at the fitness and health industry I’ve been a part of for the past four years.
I truly thought I was helping. But I was just perpetuating diet culture without even knowing it.
The majority of my personal training clients were just looking for marathon training and strength training plans, and I was more than happy to help as a certified strength and conditioning coach. But some were also looking for fat loss or nutrition plans, and in my desire to help others with their health (because I was never able to help my dad — whoa psychology!), I gave them the textbook approach for losing weight and provided online accountability to help them achieve their goals. And many did. But something never felt quite right. I was waaaay more lenient and forgiving with my clients than I was on myself, telling them to not stress out and to just enjoy themselves. This is not what a good personal trainer does, I thought. Maybe I’m not cut out for this. I stopped taking new clients and slowly backed off my personal training business, wondering why it didn’t energize me like it used to. I want to help people be healthy and happy, but something just didn’t feel right.
After realizing diet culture had a huge part to play in my HA, I knew I had to take my blog and business in a new direction. And I apologize for contributing to making anyone feel they need to change their bodies to fit into a cultural ideal. You are all beautiful and perfect that way you are <3
With that all said, here’s what I’m doing to help heal HA and (hopefully) fix my infertility.
Fixing infertility with Intuitive Eating
It is estimated that HA is the underlying cause of 35% of women who seek help for missing periods, which they usually do when they’re trying to get pregnant. Because no period = no ovulation = no pregnancy. I couldn’t find any stats about the percent of total infertility cases caused by HA or HA behaviours — such as constant dieting, stressing about food and exercising to compensate for overeating, EVEN when you are at a “normal” BMI — but based on the prevalence of diet culture and the new “healthism“, I’d suggest it’s higher than we think.
After reading No Period. Now What? and finding out I needed to eat at LEAST 2,500 calories a day coupled with almost complete rest to help recover form HA, I had to completely rethink my approach to food.
The first two weeks were harder than I thought it would be. You’d think getting a “free pass” to eat anything you want would be great, but it just showed me how ingrained diet culture was in me. When a plate of sandwiches and desserts appeared at a catered lunch meeting, I caught myself looking for the healthiest option (whole grain bread, no cheese, no mayo) instead of whatever I happened to be craving. When I went grocery shopping, I automatically picked the same “healthier” versions of foods for myself then realized, I don’t even know if this is what I like to eat because I’ve never tried anything else. I had planned to make pizza this week, and had ingredients in my cart to make a homemade dough for Matt’s pizza with cheese, pizza sauce, peppers, and several kinds of meat. For mine? A small whole wheat pita, kale, peppers, sundried tomato and nutritional yeast. What the actual f*ck, I thought to myself. That’s not a f*cking pizza.
It was clear I needed an entire mental shift to recover from HA properly, so I started looking into Intuitive Eating, which is essentially just eating when you’re hungry and stopping when your full, like you did when you were a kid before coming under the influence of diet culture. It’s crazy to even think Intuitive Eating is a thing with books and podcasts and the like, but not surprising in this day and age that we actually need external guidance to listen to our internal cues.
In the first week after following the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating and trying to remember what I liked to eat at age 14 (Kraft dinner, teriyaki chicken, pasta, apple crumble, cookies, burgers and fries, cheesecake, cereal of every kind), I’ve noticed I’m not craving the things I used to as much because they were “off limits”, and am getting better at picking what I want rather than what I think I should have. For example, on Thursday instead of having my usual half a plate of veggies and chicken breast for dinner, I ate toast with peanut butter and a bowl of cereal because I felt like eating something carby and sweet. Then yesterday, I wanted meat and veggies for dinner, so I had a chicken and bean stew I made PLUS crackers. The old me would not have had anything starchy for dinner during the week. This is just one example of a “food rule” I had for myself based on “healthy eating best practices”.
Aside from a few days a week of bloating (which is common when recovering from HA), I feel good. I’m sleeping better and am not as cold as I usually am. I’m noticing a few other symptoms of recovery already, which is a good sign.
If you’re in a similar situation as I am or also feel like your life is ruled by diet culture, I highly recommend reading No Period. Now What? by Dr. Nicola Rinaldi and Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch. You can also find Intuitive Eating Certified Counselors or Registered Dietitians in your area or online if you feel you need more support. Here are some other great resources:
- Food Psych Podcast – a podcast about intuitive eating, Health at Every Size,® and body liberation.
- Holistic Fertility Day Retreat – If you live in the Calgary area and are free on November 4, 2018, this would be an amazing workshop to attend. Jen Rawson from Ignite Nutrition Calgary will be there talking about mindful eating for fertility.
- Tabitha Farrar – An eating disorder recovery coach who has a great podcast and a book to help adults recover from eating disordered behaviours.
If you have any other resources to share, please comment below 🙂